"Two minutes to air time, so have a carrot," said Bud Collins to Donald Dell. "It'll help you see the set." And so the finals of the $100,000 Volvo Classic were about to e volleyed toward various parts of the nation yesterday through public television.

Collins did not assume former President Nixon would be watching his San Clemente neighbor, Bob Lutz, get drubbled, although he did offer a possibly cheerful note, that Bob Woodward had broken an ankly playing tennis. Would Curt Gowdy volunteer that?

Who but Bud Collins would corner Ilie Nastase after he had won an important tornament and begin the live-mike interview with: "What's a nice Communist boy like you gonna do with all that money?" Or reply to a charge of misquotation by Fred Stolle with: "The only reason I misquota you is because what you have to say is so uninteresting."

His has not been just another pretty face for 47 years now, although it has launched what seems like a thousand televised tennis tournaments over the last decade. Possibly, tennis might have become as popular as it has without Collins but certainly not as much fun to watch. Or read about.

Collins is that rarest of sporting personalities, the voice of tennis and also often its conscience. He was not present at its creation but on hand regularly when few others were - and as mystified as anyone else about where the whole racket is headed.

"I felt like a voice in the wilderness," he said of th lean years, "and every now and then I'd think: 'Maybe I'm the crazy one.' I knew tennis wouldn't replace pro football, but I knew it was better than it was getting credit for.

"I'd take a friend to a match and it was like a priest in a massage parlor. 'How long has this been going on?' they'd say. And they'd come back - in a year or so.

"I always believed in tennis, but I never thought the day would come when I'd be turning down tournaments. I guess I do about 60 shows a year. It's almost all-consuming, and it cuts down on writing, but I enjoy it because it's not like work.

"I go along for the laughs. Maybe the bottom will fall out. If it does, I'll go back to being an honest newspaper man. And I consider myself first a writer."

As a writer in Boston, Collins has a flair for attaching nicknames to the leading strokers of the sport. The day after hec alled Nastase the "Bucharest Buffoon" the Romanian appeared in the press tent, bristling in thickly accented tones:

"What . . . means . . . buffoon?"

"Just an American term of endearment," Collins said.

Oh,

If it is difficult to get angry at the Collins tongue and pen, it is impossible to remain that way very long. This is the man, after all, who actually like Nastase.

"I feel and fear for the guy," he said. "He's kind of a troubled man. Now that his prowness is starting to go, I hope he can hang on. He basically is a nice person, although a little rudderless."

Indeed, tennis itself seems entirely rudderless at times - to Collins as well as his fellow hackers.

"At least the other sports have a semblance of order, pointing to, say, a Super Bowl or a World Series, or a Masters," he said. "But tennis is going 19 different directions. There aren't three guys in the world who know what's going on from week to week.

"A few clever people, like Dell, can put the sport in their hip pocket and direct traffic. Sometimes that's good and sometimes that's bad. Tennis hasn't developed a management-promoter class as yet."

At times, Collins sees the sport he has so much affection for as "like pro wrestling with a world championship every week. Even the players seem to have no sense of their own game.

"For instance, three players skipped the Masters last year. Now can you imagine, say, Pete Rose going up to his manager, that little cheerleader (Sparky Anderson), and saying: "Look, I'm gonna skip the World Series, because there's an exhibition in Japan where they'll pay me three million yen. Besides, we'll be in it again next year and I'll play then.'

"It's a little absurd, but a real analogy."

If Collins were not a devoted hacker, he would not be so deeply devoted to tennis. If he did not have a keen sense of his - and his sport's - place in the human spectrum, he would not be tossing bagels at Harold Solomon during post-match interviews or calling himself and Dell "The Lip and The Scalp."

"Bend you knees, that's what every player must do," Collins advised his audience once during the Gottfried-Lutz final. "Donald, I remember when you could do that." Not a verbal ace, to be sure, but better than what was on the court at the moment.