Raul Ramirez sat on the rubbing table in the dressing room at Stade Roland Garros, lit a match and singed the moleskin a trainer was about to apply to the sole of his right foot.
"If you burn it a little bit, it sticks better," he said, directing the padding and bandaging of feet that blister when he plays a great deal of tennis.
The 23-year-old Mexican has been playing a lot recently because he is in the singles semifinals of the French Open championships Saturday, and to day won the doubles title for the second time with Brian Gottfried, over Wojtek Fibak and Jan Kodes, 7-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Ramirez plays Guillermo Vilas, whom he has not beaten in eight meetings but, as always, he is optimistic and positive in his thinking: "The law of averages is with me. I have to beat him sometime. He is not going to win all our lives."
In the other semi, Gottfried, Ramirez' sidekick and indefatigable practice partner, plays Phil Dent.
"I get blisters when it's hot and I'm playing six or eight hours a day on any surface, but especially clay," said Ramirez. "I like to protect them right away. I travel around with moleskin and all this stuff. If I can take care of them (the blisters) early, they never hurt me bad enough that I can't move or play."
Ramirez's game is tidy and deliberate. Before serving, he ritually smooths the clay in front of him with his to, like a pitcher pawing the rubber. He bounces the ball as many as nine or 10 times, then takes a step forward from half a foot behind the baseline and strikes his serve like a mechanical man.
He is extremely quick around the court, nimble at the net, and has a fine touch, but his tennis is more efficient than artistic, more clever than inspired.
Ramirez made his first trip to Paris in 1973. He beat Jimmy Connors in the first round and was so pleased with himself that he promptly lost to Dent in straight sets. He reached the quarterfinals the next two years, losing to Bjorn Borg and then Eddie Dibbs in five sets, and last year lost in the Semis to Harold Solomon after leading, 4-2, in the fifth set.
It was Raul Hector Ramirez, a wellplaced Ensenada businessman, who decided that Raul Carlos Ramirez, the eldest of his four children, could become a good tennis player.
He had no basis for this notion because even though young Raul was a good athlete, competing in soccer, baseball, volleyball, swimming and other sports in season, he had never played tennis.
"My mother was the women's champion of Baja California. That is not a very big title, but she played the game," Ramirez said. "My father took up tennis late, when he was about 30, but he became a good club player. He doesn't have great shots but is very competitive.
"He became very interested in the game and just got it in his mind I could be a champion. He had no idea what it took to become a professional, but he had a feeling. Maybe every father thinks this about his son, but luckily it has worked out."
It worked out primarily because the senior Ramirez went out of his way to befriend the late Rafael Osuna, Forest Hills champion of 1963 and a revered Davis Cup player in Mexico.
Before that, however, there were such encouraging moments as when his father asked him to partner him in a doubles tournament in Ensenada. "He took most of the shots - I was just a beginner - but we won and this gave me confidence. Later the same year, we played each other in the final of the singles championship of the division in Baja California. I won, 6-4, 6-4, but I think he let me win.
"He started taking me to many tournaments because he said it would help me to watch. He was very methodical. We went to the Pacific Southwest championship in Los Angeles, and that is where he met Osuna."
Remirez says he remembers the scene perfectly. "You know there are some things in your life you never forget," he said. "I can remember the exact words. My mother said, 'there he is . . . over there, go talk to him.' That's when I saw she was talking about Osuna,"
Osuna accepted the senior Ramirez's invitation to come and stay at the hotel Ramirez coowned and managed at the time. (He subsequently became director of fisheries for Baja, California and, since family friend Luis Echevarria left the Mexican presidency last December, has concentrated on managing several tourist bazaars how owns in Ensenada and consulting on the development of a tennis-golf complex in Baja, California.
Osuna hit with young Raul and encouraged him. Osuna returned frequently to Ensenada, bringing with him various Southern California teammates, including Dennis Ralston, with whom he had won the Wimbledon doubles. Eventually he brought his coach, George Toley, who was subsequently to become the major influence on Ramirez's game.
"He is the one who has taught me almost everything about techniques and tactics. He completely rebuilt my game," said Ramirez, who played for Toley at USC for two years before turning pro just after the 1973 NCAA tournament. "I still consider him my coach."
Toley invited Ramirez, then 13, to spend a month of one summer with him and his family in Los Angeles. He taught him the proper grips and new strokes, including a spin serve. He had Ramirez hitting for hours in practice alleys, against a machine, and then arranged for him to play with club members.
Osuna, who became fast friends with the senior Ramirez, continued to visit Ensenada, leaving some lasting impressions on tactics and the value of the lob, but it was Toley and the experience of playing in U.S. junior tournaments from the time he was 16 that largely propelled Ramirez toward his present status as one of the world's top 10 players, the 1976 Grand Prix champion in singles and doubles.
"Osuna didn't really teach me, but he was an inspiration," Ramirez said. "when he died in a plane crash in 1968, George Toley called to give my father the news. For a long time, my father cried."