A year ago, in his season of misplaced motivation, Raul Ramirez might well have lost the kind of match that he won yesterday over Australian Kim Warwick, 6-2, 7-6, in the first round of the $125,000 Volvo Tennis Classic.
Only a sparse gathering was on hand at mid-afternoon in George Washington University's Smith Center. You could hear every one sniffle, every yawn. If it had been the early show at your neighborhood theater, the popcorn vendor might have been asleep. It was not, in short, the kind of setting that starts a player's juices bubbling.
Ramirez, the No. 4 seed here who topped the Grand Prix point standings in both singles and doubles and established himself solidly among the world's top 10 players in 1976, lost a number of early round matches on similar dog-day afternoons in 1977.
Warwick beat him twice, in the second round of tournaments at Denver and Rome. Brian Teacher knocked him out in the first round at LaCosta, Calif., and again on the sultry opening night of last July's Washington Star International.
An obscure Canadian named Greg Halder kayoed him in the first round at North Conway, N.H., and young Ecuadorian Ricardo Ycaza did the same on the first afternoon of the U.S. Open.
"I wasn't playing badly, but for some reason I just couldn't seem to win," the exceptionally quick and agile Mexican Davis Cup star said yesterday, thinking back on his long summer of discontent.
"Maybe I played so much the year before that I just wasn't eager. I couldn't put a match away. I didn't feel ready to stay out there as long as it took to find a way to win.
"It was a funny thing. When I looked back on all those bad losses, it seemed like every time I should have won. Against Teacher here in Washington, for example, I led 5-2 in the final set. I had good leads but I didn't seem to know how to put it away. I didn't care enough."
For awhile, it looked as if it would be the same story yesterday against Warwick, a talented but overly impetuotus 25-year-old with a potent forehand and just a bit too much ambition on the big points for his own good.
Ramirez admittedly was not inspired. "It's not the game atmosphere as when you have a big crowd, and it would be easy not to care, just to play half-heartedly and lose and get aout there," he said.
Instead, he started quickly. He broke Warwick's serve in the first set and never lost more than one point on his own serve until it was 6-2, 2-2.
Then Ramirez, a handsome and meticulous 24-year-old, got a little bit careless and let Warwick get a toehold in the match at 4-3.
Warwick hit a backhand cross-court passing shot, a forehand that shipped off the net cord and over Ramirez's racket for a winner, then a wicked cross-court return off a ser ve wide to his forehand. Suddenly Ramirez, who had lost only seven points in seven service games, was down 0-40.
He walked around behind the baseline to grab a breather, stepped up the line, rubbed the ball across the front of his shirt, bounced it a dozen times and served. Warwick blocked a back-hand return. Ramirez reached and steered a forehand half-volley down the line. Wide, and now Warwick was serving for the second set 5-3.
it was here that Ramirez briefly felt a distressing sympton from last summer's lethtargy. He sensed the balance of the match shifting, but he was not unduly concerned. It didn't bother him very much.
"He broke me, and I wasn't even nervous. I wasn't tense or tight, which is a bad sign for me because I'm not caring enough," he said. "I wasn't in a hurry to put it away. I told myself, "If I lose the second, 6-3, I'll win it in the third.' That's very bad. You should always want to do it right now because later might be too late."
The difference between Ramirez last summer and Ramirez is that he realizes this. It quickly became apparent to him that he was starting to sleepwalk and better wake himself up. He halted the slide before it became an avalanche.
Ramirez was fortunate to break back t*o 4-5. At 30-30, Warwick blooped a backhand just over the net, and Ramirez gobbled it up with a high forehand. On the next point, after a rally, he chipped a backhand approach that caught the baseline. Warwick, backing up, butchered a backhand into the bottom of the net.
Now Ramirez was eager again. At 5-6 he held serve after two deuces, and was ready for the 12-point tie breaker. "I was looking forward to it. It wanted to end the match in two sets. I didn't went it to go three," he said.
He jumped out to a 4-2 lead, then won the final three points after Warwick caught up at 4-4.
Ramirez grasped the vital 5-4 point with a good backhand cross-court approach and a winner forehand cross-court volley, then served out the last two points. Warwick missed two backhands, one off a good wide serve and the other off Ramirez'sf first volley on the match point.
It wasn't memorable tennis by any means, but it was a significant match, symbolic of Ramirez' rejuvenation.
"I feel good in the court again, as I have since last September," he said. "I feel now that if I'm going to lose, someone has to beat me. I'm not going to do it myself."
He got the feeling back when he won a tournement at Los Angeles Tennis Club last September, he said.
"It was important for me to win, maybe because that club is sentimental for me. I played there a lot when I was a junior and in college (University of Southern Cal.), and it is like home."
What is the elusive feeling that he lost the spring of 1977?
"Exactly what is it," he said thoughfully, trying to express it, "is that when I step in the court I know I'm going to be running for every shot, going for every ball, and if somebody gives me a chance to win, I'll take it.
"I'm not thinking that it might lose. I'm optimistic. I'm thinking I can beat anyone, and I'm not worried. I know that if I lose, it's because the other guy played better.