Twenty years ago today, two players each won a claycourt tournament. In Rome, Marcelo Rios won the Italian Open. In Orlando, Michael Chang won the US Claycourt Championships.
The journeys of each of these two reveal much about an intriguing question: What is talent?
To watch Rios at his best was to witness sport turned into art. Rios’ eyes, hands, feet and racquet moved with seemingly effortless alertness, often giving him the widest possible range of options whenever he struck the ball – all the guile and grace you’d often expect from a lefthander. A dialed-in Rios was the cat, his opponent a helpless mouse.
Chang never toyed with anyone. It wasn’t in Chang’s nature to think himself as the master of anything other than his own personal ability to concentrate. A Chang victory was a study in willpower, his effort vivid in everything from the studied service motion to Chang’s ability to dig in and grind his way through one point after another.
Less than a year after his Italian Open win, in March 1998, Rios was ranked number one in the world.
Chang’s peak came in 1996 when he was ranked number two in the world. Had he beaten Pete Sampras in that year’s US Open final, Chang would have been number one.
Were you to watch each merely strike the ball, you would think Rios was the one one with more talent. But alas, Rios was harshly indifferent, downright antagonistic to just about everyone he encountered. How could someone who so loved the tennis ball have so much hostility towards the world? In time, anger devoured Rios. For all his skill, he reached but one Grand Slam singles final, losing the ’98 Australian Open to Petr Korda, 62, 62, 62. Rios finished the year in the top ten but twice.
Chang approached the game entirely differently. From equipment to fitness, tactics to racquets, he repeatedly turned over one stone after another. Greatness had come early, Chang winning Roland Garros at the age of 17. There would be three other trips to Grand Slam finals, seven top ten finishes and, later, a spot in the International Tennis Hall of Fame. It was all pure testimony to Chang’s devotion.
So to examine Rios and Chang begs the question: What does talent really mean? Or might we broaden our definition? As Billie Jean King once told me, “Persistence is a talent.”
Read more articles by Joel Drucker