New York — At a major tennis tournament such as the US Open it is not unusual for lesser-known players to make the big names squirm in the early rounds. Sometimes they even send seeded players packing.
It was not too surprising, therefore, to see the top seed himself, John McEnroe, struggle to win a five-set, first-round match against Trey Waltke. Neither was anyone astonished that Vitas Gerulaitis, a 1979 finalist and two-time semifinalist, had to overcome a two-set deficit to beat Brazil's Marcos Hocevar.
And it wasn't as though Gerulaitis hadn't been warned about the dangers lurking on the grandstand court. Eighth-seeded Jose-Luis Clerc had just been eliminated there by Tim Wilkison in three straight sets.
For Clerc, it was another case of losing on a surface - rubberized asphalt - that doesn't really suit his baseline-oriented game. Clerc, who was also a first-round loser here last year, can be sensational on the slower surfaces. But until he can make a dent at Wimbledon and the US Open he will never convince people he is more than an accomplished clay-court specialist.
McEnroe and Gerulaitis like the Open's hard courts, and as New York natives, they basically have some advantages playing close to home. They aren't necessarily big crowd favorites, however, and in his match with Waltke, McEnroe actually found many spectators cheering for his underdog opponent. That's the American way.
Of course, John doesn't endear himself to the crowds with his verbal sniping, which this time netted him $1,850 in fines for abuse of an official, a spectator , and the ball. That raised his fine total for the year to $7,300 - perilously close to $7,500, beyond which he would be subject to at least a 21-day suspension.
Against Waltke, one of his outbursts was directed at a spectator who McEnroe said was bent on annoying him - which is just what John allowed to happen. In other sports, athletes generally ignore hecklers, but McEnroe doesn't take that tack, and sometimes it works against him.
Asked if he didn't welcome adverse situations as a stimulus to his play, he confided, ''Sometimes I do play better when things like that happen, but in this case it kept me from concentrating. If I don't play any better than this, I won't win the tournament.''
He agreed that Waltke traditionally gave him trouble. In fact, the unseeded Californian, ranked 130th in the world, actually owned a winning record against John in three previous matches.
For those not armed with such statistics, Waltke may be remembered as the player who wore long pants at Wimbledon this year. The attire has led him to a clothing contract with a new line called Grass Court Collection. His real name, incidentally, is Richard Henry Waltke III. ''You know, trey means three,'' he explained, adding,''but they don't call my dad deuce.''
Gerulaitis, a major threat here in previous Opens though a first-round loser last year, has had an off-season and is seeded only 15th. Hocevar held three match points against him, but Vitas fought them off and may get a mental boost from that narrow escape.
Practicing against retired superstar Bjorn Borg at Vitas's Long Island home could help too. Borg still makes a tough sparring partner for his friend, who says Bjorn is playing very well but not thinking of competing again.
On the women's side, two-time former champion Tracy Austin has bowed out as the result of not being in top physical condition. Austin withdrew from Wimbledon as well, and has won only one tournament since December 1981.
Opening day winners included third-seeded Andrea Jaeger and two-time finalist Hana Mandlikova, with many of the other top women swinging into action Wednesday. Return of the Soviets
The Soviet Union once sent a small, but reasonably strong contingent to the US Open. But by 1977 the Soviets made a decision to withhold their players from most international competitions due to conflicts with the sport's various governing groups.
This year, however, the USSR is represented at the Open for the first time since 1976. Actually only one player, Larissa Savchenko, made either of the main draws, although several others are scheduled to compete in the junior tournament. The Soviet coach is Olga Morzova, one of the better players on the pro circuit in the early to mid-1970s.
Savchenko was impressive in her US debut, forcing seventh-seeded Sylvia Hanika to a third set, before bowing 6-2, 5-7, 6-4.
Decline and fall of a champion
Eight months can make a world of difference in college football. In January, Penn State beat Georgia in the Sugar Bowl to complete an 11-1 season and wrap up the No. 1 ranking. Monday night, however, the defending national champions were pretty much handed their helmets on a platter by Nebraska, a 44-6 winner in the inaugural Kickoff Classic at Giants Stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands.
''Dream game? Call it a nightmare,'' said coach Joe Paterno after a defeat equaled only by a 49-11 loss to UCLA in his first season as head coach in 1966.
On paper, the contest had a lot going for it, with last year's champions taking on the team many had picked to ascend a gridiron throne. The Nittany Lions had also been the only team to beat Nebraska last year, and then in the last seconds.
After losing quarterbaack Todd Blackledge and running back Curt Warner, few realistically expected Penn State to repeat as national champion. Whatever such thoughts may have remained, hwoever, were abruptly shattered before 71,000 spectators and a nationwide TV audience.
Neither Paterno nor Tom Osborne, the Nebraska coach, wanted to play the game, a by-invitation-only affair organized to benefit the College Football Hall of Fame. Both coaches were concerned about making the season any longer than it already is, but left the decision to their players.
Penn State obviously still has some positions to sort out, and can be expected to improve once Paterno settles on a starting quarterback.
Nebraska, meanwhile, is already being compared in some circles to the 1971 Cornhuskers, considered one of the greatest college teams ever. With a backfield including Turner Gill, Mike Rozier, and Irving Fryar, the Huskers are unquestionably one of the most explosive offensive teams in many a year.
An irony of this year's Kickoff Classic was the number of prominent New Jersians in the game. Rozier and Fryar are both from the Garden State, as are Penn State's top two offensive players, tailback Jon Williams and wide reciever Kenny Jackson. If Rutgers (the State University of New Jersey) could have kept these four home, the Scarlet Knights would probably be playing for the national championship themselves.