Chris Delaney sat at center court a Rock Creek Stadium yesterday and backhanded gnats. His swats were hard and precise, but this would be his only match this day on the main stage of the Washington Star International tennis tournament.And the gnats would win.

"Playing at center court in a final -- that's something I'm working on," said Delaney, 23."Believe me, I'm working on it.

"I'm playing over there," he added, waving off into the distance, toward fenced-in court A-4 where he would play his first match in the dreaded 48-man qualifying round for the Washington Star tournament that begins Monday.

Delaney later defeated Claude England, formerly of the University of Maryland, 6-4, 6-1. Two hours later, he defeated Rob Hubbard, 6-1, 6-3. Still, he will have to win a third match this morning just to reach the 64-man draw.

"I'm not crazy about these qualifying rounds," said Delaney, from Potomac.

Delaney has been a tennis professional for nearly two years, since leaving Southern Methodist University. He is of the same profession as John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors. But there is a difference: jfor one thing, none of those three would be found at an empty center court swatting gnats.

"I played McEnroe once; he beat me one and one (6-1, 6-1)," said Delaney, ranked 148th in the world by the Association of Tennis Professional (ATP). Early last year, he was ranked 50th in the world and, he added, "That was great. I was playing real well then."

Then came a couple of injuries, then a few losses. He fell to 280th. He since has almost halved that number and is hoping to divide by two again.

"My goal now is to get back to about 70. That way I could get into most every tournament without worrying about qualifying," said Delaney, whose older brother Jim, 28, is ranked 121st by ATP and gained the Star's draw without qualifying.

"I made probably about $30,000 last year," Delaney said. "That may sound like a lot, but you have to consider that my expenses were about $15,000 to $20,000 with travel, hotels and food. I'm just hanging in by the skin of my teeth. Right now I'm just a little ahead of the game.

"I'll see how it goes over the next year. It's really competitive playing pro tennis. I'm not a seasoned vet, yet. It doesn't even seem like I have been playing for two years already."

Delaney spent the last three months playing on satellite circuits. He won four of the 12 tournaments he entered, in such places as Hialeah, Vero Beach and Del Ray Beach in Florida, Shreveport, La., and Charleston, S.C.