College Kid Has Court Encounter With Marcelo Rios in Sarasota

Former ATP world no. 1 Marcelo Rios and Coley Hungate at Sarasota Bath & Racquet Club.

By Scoop Malinowski

Fortunes come tumbling into some men’s laps.
– Francis Bacon

The text came on Coley Hungate’s phone on a December afternoon, shortly after his own training session at Bath & Racquet in Sarasota, “Hey, are you still available?” asked local coach and friend of Marcelo Rios, Rene Muzquiz. “Can you maybe come back to the club, Marcelo Rios is looking for someone to hit with. Thought you would be a good level for him. Can you come for like an hour?”

No right-minded tennis player would ever turn down a chance of a lifetime to hit with a former ATP world no. 1 player like Rios and Coley Hungate is no fool. He jumped at the miraculous opportunity.

“I said yeah of course,” recalled Hungate, a 20 year old walk-on player at the University of Florida and also the manager of the women’s UF team. “I was on Christmas holiday break from school and one of my former coaches Rene Muzquiz, is a friend of Rios, he asked me to come back and play with him. It was a great opportunity.”

An opportunity some people would pay upwards of $50,000 for. Or more. Hungate drove back to Bath & Racquet to meet the court king who ruled the ATP in 1998, before Hungate was born in 1999. Despite the generation gaps between them, Hungate was familiar with the Rios legend, “He was before my time but he has some of the most unbelievable You Tube highlights,” said Hungate. “I found it by chance. You see Rafa, Federer highlights, then you naturally end up finding Rios highlights.”

After arriving at the club, Hungate met Muzquiz and Rios at the designated hard court. Rios arrived in his customized black Chevy Corvette with the vanity license plate MRIOS. Hungate’s initial impression of Rios? “A bit gruff at first. Took some warming up to. I’ve been around top level guys. It’s a mixed bag. Some guys are very welcoming right away. Some take, like I said, take a little warming up to. So (Rios) was like not talking to anyone except for Rene, speaking in Spanish, when he first came out. And then he took his time to get ready. I’m just sitting there like, Whoa, this is that guy on TV. Only until we started warming up, hitting, then I started talking to him and he started to warm up a bit and had some conversation. I remember he said he’s trying to be based more in Florida because he had some problem in Chile about his family receiving threats.”

Coley is one of those nice kids, with a perpetual natural smile on his face. He has a demeanor that makes you wonder if he’s been mad once  in the last five years. He’s one of those people you know you can totally trust in the first minute of meeting him.

I met Coley by chance. Coley’s dad Mark is a defense attorney in Sarasota, and a long time friend and host for ATP pro Tennys Sandgren. Whenever Sandgren plays the ATP Challenger Sarasota Open he stays with the Hungates who have known Sandgren since Tennys was 12. I became friendly with Sandgren two years ago at the Sarasota Open and met Mark Hungate and his son Coley this year. Our conversations eventually lead to my Marcelo Rios book, The Man We Barely Knew, which subsequently lead to Coley telling me about his very special experience of having the opportunity to hit tennis balls with Rios.

Professional tennis players are in another universe compared to regular, ordinary players and despite being largely inactive tennis-wise for the last seven years, Hungate quickly sensed the talent of Rios is still a remarkable force. 

“Even being in quote unquote retirement, he’s still in unbelievable shape,” noted Hungate, who was ranked in the top 75 nationally in the USTA boys 16s and played in the Eddie Herr International tournament at IMG Academy. “Rios has a different physique than players on the Tour. More muscular. His ball was different. His strokes are very simple. Looking at him hit it doesn’t necessarily look like the ball is as quality as it is but when you’re on the other side of it, his ball just explodes off the court. He hits the ball kind of flat. Flatness comes through the court, the courts are kind of fast, it bounces fast and comes at you. It’s difficult to handle. That’s expected of Tour players. But unique from anything I’ve played against.”

Though their statuses in the tennis universe vary enormously, Hungate did manage one highlight moment against Rios. Just one. “I got him on one,” he reveals with a chuckle. “We had like a twenty or thirty ball rally that ended with me running to my right. I had him stretched out on a slice wide. Then he pushed me line. And then I hit like an unbelievable running forehand winner from outside the alley. I think it was one of my only winners. Because he tracked down everything I hit. Maybe he missed a few from tough positions. I think that was the only winner I had in the whole match of baseline games. Running winner forehand past him. It was an unbelievable point actually.”

Rios knows brilliant tennis when he sees it or inspires it and he even expressed a mild gesture of salute to Hungate. “He was like, ‘ARGGGHHH!  You finally got me.’ I kind of got the impression he got maybe some satisfaction of getting to every ball. That fighter mentality. Like, Damn, he got one on me. But the next point was right back to another twenty ball rally. It was very physical tennis.”

As the two gladiators, two decades apart in age, bonded on the court, they also became closer off it. Rios began to talk more during the breaks. “He asked where I am in school. Do I have an ATP ranking,” Hungate recalls. “I asked him about players from Chile. He said, Oh yeah, we have one guy who is having some good success, Nicolas Jarry. It sounded like he still pays attention to the Tour a bit, how people are doing. I didn’t go as far to ask him for any advice. He said, ‘You played well.’ So it was a fairly big compliment. So I appreciated it.”

Rios and Hungate hit for about thirty minutes longer than the originally planned hour. The lasting memory of the overall episode of playing tennis with Marcelo Rios?  “It was an unforgettable experience. It was something very cool that I had that opportunity,” evaluated Hungate. “Like I said, he came across as an interesting but cool guy. And I think I will most remember just at the end of the practice, the typical firm handshake, taking a picture together and walking off was cool.”

“The longer one plays and enjoys tennis, the greater it’s rewards spiritually, psychologically and physically.” – Lew Hoad


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