Jose-Luis Clerc on hot streak reminiscent of 1981

If Jose-Luis Clerc were to write the script for the second half of this year's tennis circuit, he could hardly ask for anything better than an encore of 1981. And at the moment, that's exactly what seems to be happening.

It was two years ago when a victory in the US Pro Championships launched the spectacular streak of 27 consecutive match victories that catapulted Clerc to worldwide prominence. The stylish Argentine shotmaker with the methodical groundstroke attack won four tournaments on the summer clay court circuit that year, proving without question that he belonged among the world's top players.

Clerc played reasonably well if not quite so spectacularly in 1982, but then fell into the worst slump of his career this year, going six months without a tournament victory and usually finding himself eliminated in the first or second round. He broke out of it three weeks ago, however - and there's been no stopping him since.

The new streak began, just as the old one had, in the US Pro Championships, where he regained the title from fellow countryman Guillermo Vilas, who had won this traditional event at Longwood Country Club outside of Boston last year.

Clerc dominated the 1983 tournament without losing a set, and eventually defeated 18-year-old Jimmy Arias, the Italian Open champion, 6-3, 6-1 in the final by combining a strong serving game with his powerful topspin groundstroke attack.

''Winning this event is good for me,'' an elated Clerc said after the final. ''I move better now and play with more confidence.''

The past two weeks attest to that fact, for he has since gone on to win the D.C. National Bank Classic in Washington and the Volvo International in North Conway, N.H.

At Washington, Jose-Luis again met Arias in the final, and although he did drop a set this time, he left little doubt about his superiority in a 6-3, 3-6, 6-0 conquest. This past week at the Volvo tournament he had a different opponent but a similar result, routing Ecuador's Andres Gomez 6-3, 6-1.

Although Clerc plays all surfaces, there's no doubt that he is tougher on soft courts.

Says Jose-Luis: ''I play fast court tournaments, but I am much more comfortable on clay. I grew up playing on clay, and am more successful playing on it. I expect to do very well in these clay court tournaments.

''I've worked very hard to play these four tournaments in America, I feel pretty good now, and I'm going to try very hard to win the last event,'' he said , referring to the US Open Clay Court Championships in Indianapolis that began this week.

Consistency has always been Clerc's forte, as indicated by the fact that he has remained within the top 10 spots in the world since 1980. Clerc first appeared on the computer rankings in 1977, when he was No. 278. By the end of 1978, though, he had climbed all the way up to No. 15 as his game improved steadily. He is currently ranked No. 8.

In view of that record, this year's dismal start was a hard one to explain - but for months Clerc's results looked more like those of a journeyman than of a top-ranking player. He failed to advance past the second round in nine of ten tournaments, leading many people to wonder what was wrong with his game, and when he would end his victory drought.

Jose-Luis did have one big success during those months, however - not in tournament play but in Davis Cup action, where he upset John McEnroe to lead Argentina to a victory over the United States.

''When you play Davis Cup, it's a lot of pressure, a lot of nervousness,'' admits Clerc. ''Playing Grand Prix is different - it's still fun, but I'm not playing for my country, and I'm not as nervous.''

Clerc keeps his opponents running from corner to corner with consistently blazing topspin groundstrokes, but he credits his serving as a major factor towards his recent improvement. ''I work on my serve a lot,'' he said. ''It works much better now, and is a much stronger part of my game.''

Clerc also noted that he feels more confident in the summer months. Whereas many of his opponents falter in the hot and grueling weather of the North American tournament cities, he claims to like the heat and humidity. ''I like to play when it is really hot. It takes only a few minutes to warm up and then I am ready to play.'' Unlike his opponents who were being worn down by the heat, Jose-Luis seemed to breeze through the matches.

Another key for his recent success, he feels, has been his return to a regular size racket. Earlier this year, Clerc switched from a regular size racket to a mid-size, but after disappointing results, he switched back. ''I changed my racket around four weeks ago. Now I play with the small one again,'' he says, and insists, ''It is much better for me. I have better control and can put the ball where I want it. I feel more comfortable.''

Clerc's return to top form in tournament play is a welcome occurrence to most tennis enthusiasts, for the 24-year-old native of Buenos Aires is one of the most popular players on the tour, and was voted the 1981 Sportsmanship Award by his fellow players. It's been good for his bank account, too: the $34,000 first prize at North Conway gave him $102,000 in winnings in the last three weeks, plus a new $21,000 car, and boosted his earnings for the year to $175,000.

The relative ease with which he has won the three titles has also served to make the critics - and Jose-Luis himself - stop talking about the rough times and look forward optimistically to the remainder of the year. He says, in fact, that he believes he is playing even better now than he did in 1981, and that he feels he has a chance to move up into the top five in the rankings by the end of the year.

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