Points won directly behind the serve:
31 % Rios – 29 of 91
32 % Agassi – 32 of 98
At the end of 1997 it was actually unimaginable that three months later, Rios would become the best player in the world. When the ’97 season ended, he was ranked No. 10, more than 2 thousand points behind Sampras. Yet one of the most extraordinary circumstances in the Open history happened within the first three months of 1998: the 22-year-old Chilean, mainly considered as a clay-court specialist, enjoyed a phenomenal period on hardcourts: finished Australian Open as a runner up, and won three titles (Auckland, Indian Wells, Key Biscayne) while Sampras suffered surprising defeats in Melbourne (QF), Indian Wells & Key Biscayne (third rounds).
The biggest contenders to overthrow Sampras (the ranking leader 102 straight weeks): the US Open ’97 champion Patrick Rafter and Petr Korda (Aussie Open ’98 champion) didn’t handle the pressure losing early in the Indian Wells-Key Biscayne combo [btw: Rios took a revenge on Korda defeating him 6-4, 6-2 in the quarterfinals at Indian Wells]. Out of nowhere Rios entered the Key Biscayne final with a possibility to become the best player in the world, and as a first South American in history he managed to do it after sensational performance against Agassi, who was returning to the top-form after a bizarre 1997 when he dropped outside the Top 100.
Warmest day of the tournament. It was the first meeting between Rios & Agassi, and barely 1 of their 3. The Chilean led 4:1* (40/30) in the 1st set, Agassi leveled at 4 games apiece. In the 2nd set Rios broke for 3:1 and for 4:3 in the 3rd. Rios had a 11-match winning streak after the victory, losing just two sets during the stretch.
New York Times:
”Winning this, and beating Agassi in the final, the former No. 1, I can’t ask for more,” said Rios, who didn’t start playing tennis until he was 11 but became the No. 1 junior in the world six years later. ”Being the best player in the world for Chile is something like not normal; I feel really proud.” According to Agassi, who has raised his status from 141st to 22nd in the course of an eight-tournament rebuilding campaign that started in November, said: ”Rios brings another dimension to tennis. You have to address him like a big power. I thought I could back him into the paint, but the bottom line is, he doesn’t play his size, he moves well, he serves better than you expect, and you can’t wait for him to miss.” Not since Michael Chang, said Agassi, has he seen a performer of Rios’s resourcefulness.
Up to now, Rios is the only No. 1 in the world to have never won a Grand Slam title. He stayed in the elite just to the end of 1998 when injuries started to haunt him.
Rios’ route to his 8th title:
2 Hendrik Dreekmann 6-3, 6-4
3 Tommy Haas 6-4, 6-3
4 Goran Ivanisevic 6-2, 6-3
Q Thomas Enqvist 6-3, 2-0 ret.
S Tim Henman 6-2, 4-6, 6-0
W Andre Agassi 7-5, 6-3, 6-4