The Tour Highlights 2006-2008
In 1998, Chile’s Marcelo Rios rode a wave of momentum that took him to the World No.1 ranking. With his slashing, left-handed forehand, Rios won titles in Indian Wells, Miami and Rome as well as reaching the Australian Open final.
Eight years later, having retired from the ATP World Tour, Rios joined the ATP Champions Tour and embarked on a similar spell of domination. He won the first six tournaments that he participated in, winning 25 matches in a row and taking the level of play on the Tour to a new high. His opponents needed no invitation to step up and challenge him. They trained ever harder in their quest to be the first to beat him. The 2005 Masters Tennis champion Paul Haarhuis was the first enjoy that experience, triumphing 6-3, 7-6 over Rios in Frankfurt. The Dutchman wasn’t about to stop there. He travelled to London a few weeks later and won his second successive Masters Tennis title, surprisingly beating Goran Ivanisevic in the final.
With the arrival of clay court champions such as Rios, Jim Courier, Sergi Bruguera and Thomas Muster in recent years, the news that Bjorn Borg was interested in a return to the ATP Champions Tour after six years away from the competition was viewed by some with surprise and some trepidation. At 51, many of the players were 15 years younger than him, and it seemed implausible that even someone as great as Borg could compete successfully against them. We need not have worried. Borg arrived for his return event in the Algarve, Portugal without a spare ounce of fat on him and more relaxed than ever with his young son, Leo, and his wife, Patricia, by his side. Once on the court, he moved as well as ever. He defeated another former French Open champion, Andres Gomez, in straight sets in his opening match, and put up a competitive showing against Muster in a match for the ages - their first ever encounter.
“When I started to play tennis I thought Borg was so cool,” said Muster. “I would hit against the wall and imagine that I was playing against him. I don’t think people expected him to still be this quick and this good.”
The match that everyone was waiting for was obviously Borg’s first encounter with John McEnroe since Borg’s return to the ATP Champions Tour. It came in Eindhoven. Typically, it was a cracker. McEnroe won it, but the American was already smiling just to see his old rival back on the other side of the net. In the Masters Tennis at the Royal Albert Hall, Paul Haarhuis completed a hat-trick of titles, beating Guy Forget in the final.
The previous year had been notable for the return of Bjorn Borg, but 2008 was all about the comebacks of more contemporary greats. Pete Sampras, Patrick Rafter, Michael Chang and Yevgeny Kafelnikov all made their first appearances on the ATP Champions Tour as the circuit of former World No.1’s, Grand Slam finalists and Davis Cup winners went from strength-to-strength.
Prior to his comeback, Sampras spoke of feeling “unfulfilled as man” without having tennis events to focus on and a job to do, and so his return was particularly special. He won his debut event in Sao Paulo, beating Marcelo Rios in a final that boasted tennis of the highest quality. Rafter was still as laid-back as ever when he arrived in Graz, and like Sampras, he took a title at his first attempt. The Australian had trained hard to get ready for the event, and his serve-volley tennis and trademark athleticism was as lethal as ever. Kafelnikov and Chang both played in the AFAS Classics in Eindhoven, and Kafelnikov was shocked by the impressive shape and form that he found his opponents in. Both performed creditably, but neither reached the final. Richard Krajicek won his maiden tour title, and on home soil.
There were also successful first-time events in Istanbul and Budapest, both won by Goran Ivanisevic. In London, Cedric Pioline shocked everyone by beating Sampras for the first time in his career to reach the final. The Frenchman then beat Greg Rusedski to win the title.