From 1974 through 1978, almost any list of the top five tennis players in the world would have included the name of Raul Ramirez.
Ramirez, the little Mexican with the whipsaw backhand, compiled a record for consistency during that period - in both singles and doubles - that won the envy of his fellow pros.
"I think I can say that I worked as hard, and accomplished as much, as any player in the world," Ramirez said yesterday after obliterating Robert Van't Hof, 6-2, 6-1, in a second-round match in the Washington Star International Tennis Tournament. "I just loved playing all the time. I knew I was good and I enjoyed playing the game."
But, slowly, Ramirez's break-neck schedule wore him down. He was still playing well but not as well as he had in 1975 when he twice led Mexico to Davis Cup upsets of the United States and in 1976, when he won the Grand Prix points title in singles and doubles.
"I hung in during '77 and '78 but it wasn't the same," said Ramirez, now ranked 34th in the world and seeded 13th here. "Before, when I won a tournament, I felt great, like I never wanted to stop playing the game.
"Even when I won a match, I would feel like I could play 50 weeks in a row. I was ecstatic. But this year if I won it was routine. If I lost I really didn't care. I wasn't tough on myself like I had been."
Ironically, Ramirez hit a low point during the one tournament he has won in recent months, the Grand Prix event in Florence, Italy, in early May.
"I had won a tournament and really didn't care," he said. "I had to make a decision. Do I keep trying to play when I don't feel like it or do I take a rest."
Ramirez opted for a rest, not touching a racket for two weeks. Then, he slowly worked himself into shape for Wimbledon - not playing tournaments, just practicing.
Even though he lost in the second round at Wimbledon, to Sandy Mayer, he could feel his eagerness returning. Reunited with Brian Gottfried in doubles, he went to the final.
"Right now, I feel great," he said, waving briefly at a group of young female admirers who had gathered at a nearby fence. "I'm enjoying myself on the court again. I'm having fun with the game.
"One of my strengths has always been my concentration. Earlier, I wasn't thinking about the shots I was hitting. I was getting tired.I just turned 26; I'm too young to get tired."
But Ramirez admits that he feels differently about the game now. He is young enough to want more out of life than tennis.
"With me, it was always work, work, word," he said. "I never thought about anything but tennis. Then, gradually I found that I really wanted to do more with my life. I wanted to have time to play.
Now, I still want to play a lot of tennis and I want to win but I also want to play. I don't want to just be a tennis robot.
"The only way I would be willing to work like that again is if I was absolutely positive that I would be No. 1 in the world. But how can you be positive of something like that? There's Borg, there's Connors and there's a bunch of young players who are working at their game like crazy."
Ramirez is working at his game now, but not like crazy. "Today, it's incredibly tough to stay on top," he said. "I was ranked in the top five for five years in a row. How many players do that? Borg and Connors are two in a million. I'm happy I was able to be consistent. That's what I want to do now - be consistent."
Today, Ramirez will play 6-8 Victor Pecci, the rapidly rising Paraguayan who beat Jimmy Connors to reach the French final and is seeded ahead of Ramirez here.
"The way I look at it now, I look at each match and say, "I can beat him,"" Ramirez said. "Pecci's playing very well. But I've beaten him before and I can beat him again."
Doubles partner Gottfried said, "Raul hates lose anything. He'll always be competitive."
Ramirez agreed. "I'm proud of what I've done. The Wimbledon doubles title, the Italian, but especially the win over Connors in Davis Cup - that was the tops.
"I want to do more, though. When I die, I want the people who played against me to say that Ramirez was as tough a competitor as they ever faced, that he still broke his tail trailing, 6-0, 5-0. That he never quit and you had to die yourself to beat him." CAPTION: Picture, Raul Ramirez