In 1978, the leading money winner on the professional tennis tour was not Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors or Guillermo Vilas. It was Eddie Dibbs.

Few people seemed to notice. Dibbs won four tournaments, was runner-up in three others and won $575,000 in prize money. He also won the Grand Prix bonus pool based on overall record for the season.

Borg won the Italian and French opens and Wimbledon. Connors won the U.S. Open and Vilas the Australian. They also won all the attention.

"I guess you have to win one of those big titles to get any attention, no matter what else you do," said Dibbs, relaxing in the players' lounge. "I've been ranked in the top 10 in the world about the last five years" - he is currently seventh - "but all you hear at every stop on the tour is borg and Connors.

"If they don't play in a tournament, everyone says it's a lousy tournament, that no one good is playing. That isn't true. Look at this tournament. There are kids playing here no one's ever heard of and they're already excellent players.

"I think of myself as an easy-going guy," said Dibbs, smiling, because his reputation is anything but easygoing. "I like to play tennis and I like to screw around, joke around with my friends. That's really it."

But the lack of recognition irks him. "I don't care that much about it," said Dibbs, Brooklyn-born but raised in North Miami Beach. "But when they bring you in, you talk for 20 minutes and then the next day all you see in the paper is Borg and Connors. I think it's bad, for the game when they don't try to build up the other names."

Fighting uphill battels is nothing new for Dibbs. He grew up as a tennis hustler on public-park courts across the street from where he lived. Blessed with great natural ability and stamina, he has lacked the one weapon required to win at Wimbledon - a big serve-and-volley game.

Like Harold Solomon, his longtime friend, Dibbs is a tireless back-court player, getting everything back all day and all night, if necesarry. Unlike Solomon, Dibbs does not mind coming to the net. He has consistently done better than Solomon on tour as a result, although they are still constantly linked as "The Bagel Twins."

That label doesn't please Dibbs because he is a fierce individualist. He also is not Jewish.

"One of the reasons I got involved with tennis when I was a kid was because I like the one-on-one competition. I never really got into team sports even though I was a good baseball player. I just preferred tennis; it was a challenge."

Dibbs taught himself the game well enough to earn a scholarship to the University of Miami, where he was a three-time All-America. He turned pro in 1973 and today, at 28, could retire comfortably.

"I keep playing because I enjoy it," he said. "I could live without the traveling, although it's been easier the last year since I've had my girlfriend with me. It's nice to have someone around who's always rooting for you."

Dibb's girlfriend, Jo Self, is his answer to the many players who use a coach today - "except she doesn't try to tell me what to do."

"I think a lot of guys need a coach just to have a psychological crutch," Dibbs said. "They need a friendly face in the stands when things get tough in a match. But I've never really believed in that. I meand what is a coach going to tell a Borg? You can't teach him anything."

Dibbs is known as one of the hardest workers in tennis - a label he says he doesn't deserve. "I've always gotten by on natural ability," he said. "Last year, I trained a little harder and it paid off. But I think I could work a lot harder."

On the court, Dibbs resembles a grizzled gun-fighter, daring the young sharpshooters to try and take him on.

Friday night against 20-year-old Eliot Teltscher, Dibbs was in deep trouble, down a set and trailing, 0-40, at 4-all in the second. He didn't lose another game.Forehands and backhands came off his rackt like rockets. Teltscher, who had been playing superbly, was in a daze.

"I was really have trouble," Dibbs said afterward. "He was playing so well. But when I got down 0-40, I just got more aggressive. I dug down a little deeper."

When Dibbs does lose, he goes down with guns blazing. "You can never let up against Eddie," said Vials. "If you do, he will jump all over you. He can run all day. He never seems to get tired, no matter how many shots he hits."

Jose Higueras, like Dibbs a claycourt specialist, said, "If you beat Eddie, you earn it. He doesn't take losing well."

In fact, Dibb's aversion to losing caused him to give up his favorite hobby: gambling."I guess I outgrew it," he said. "I always enjoyed putting money on the lime, even when I was a kid. But if you're losing, it can get expensive. I work hard for money. I didn't want to blow it all on gambling, even though it can be a lot of fun."

Dibbs says he will play full time for another three or four years, then retire. He's not sure what he will do when he quits. "Maybe I'll coach," he said. "Or maybe I'll just lie on the beach."

And how does Eddie Dibbs want to be remembered when he does finally retire. "Remembered?" he said. "Hell, in 10 years no one will even remember that Eddie Dibbs ever played the game. In 15 years, they won't remember Connors." CAPTION: Picture, Eddie Dibbs: "I think it's bad for the game when they don't try to build up the other names." By Richard Darcey - The Washington Post