There was the flat tire. Just what you need in Boston traffic. A flat tire. That came before he spilled the steaming clam chowder all over his left hand. Life is a bowl of cherries sometimes, and sometimes it's clam chowder doing a third-degree number on your body. He wanted a Coke on the way to the airport. He put 50 cents into the machine.

"So the ice comes out," Mel Purcell said.

"Then the Coke comes out," he said.

"The cup never came out."

You'd like Mel Purcell. He is a tennis pro who isn't in boot camp for jerkdom. He is a nice guy. He smiles and laughs alot, even about last week's troubles. Of course, it wasn't funny then. As the Coke dribbled away, Mel Purcell decided life had no meaning. Those are his words. "Life had no meaning," he said. "With all that stuff going on, I expected the plane to crash on the way to Washington."

Well, yes, Purcell did lose his first-round match in the U.S. Tennis Pro Tournament Campionships in the Boston suburb of Brookline. At 21, when you're wondering if you're any good, it hurts to lose in the first round. Them when God takes you Coke cup away, you say things like, "Really, life had no meaning. It was the first downspell I've had like that since I've been out here."

At 21, self-discovery is thrilling. Mel Purcell's plane did not crash. He spilled no more chowder. His Cokes had had cups all this week. And he has won three straight matches to get to today's quaterfinals of the Washington Star's $200,000 tournament.

"Everything's great now," Purcell said. Well, yes, he had beaten a nemiss, Eliot Teltscher, and could make it to the final here by beating unseeded Stanislav Birner and (most likely) third-seeded Jose-Luis Clerc. This latest victory is one mr sign that Mel Purcell, the little blond who puts the tenny-boppers into overdrive, is growing up into a real tennis player.

The first thing that you notice about Purcell is that there isn't much to notice. He is 5-foot-10, 155. The only muscle in his body is in his rightr forearm. "I have bird legs," he said to no argument. He has a bird chest, too, and he doens't look far removed from the teeny-tiny 10-year-old kid who stood at the baseline for hours batting balls to his tennis coach-father in Murray, Ky.

So the crowds go for this skinny guy in his battles against the Adonises. It helps that Purcell is combative.He wears a white cloth wrapped around his forehead to hold down his hair. It comes down to his eyebrows, giving him a stern look.

And the guy is everywehere on the court. He returns shots us hackers couldn't get to in an hour. His opponent yesterday, Teltscher, chewed out a ball boy for not handing him a towel quickly enough, and then engaged in a shouting match with a paying customer in the stands. Put all this together, and you have a thousand people cheering for the nice little blond kid."

"The fans give Mel that same reaction everywhere," said Richard Finn, a publicity man for the tour.

"I just go out and play," Purcell said when someone asked him why people like him. "I don't go out there like a jerk. I just want to be a nice guy."

He grinned a bit and said, "Sometimes it's hard to do."

"Isn't it kind of like being a rock star?" someone said.

"I wish I was a rock star," said Purcell, who was wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt. "But I'm a tennis player, not even a tennis star."

Nearly inaudibly, he added ". . . yet."

He is big in Japan though.

"They love blond hair. Man, they were taking the hair right out of my head. I just wish they were older. They were all 14, 15."

Speaking of jerks, what does Purcell think of John McEnroe?

"I believe in what Mac does," Purcell said. "Maybe he gets a little carried away, but you gotta hate to lose to be great. I hate to lose matches, but Mac hates to lose points. He hates to lose the toss."

Does Purcell give advice to McEnroe?

"Maybe on backgammon."

Winner of the $75,000 Tampa tournament early this year, an all-america at Tennessee, an NCCAA Indoors champion, Purcell turned pro only last year. He promptly reached the final at Indianapolis, upsetting Harold Solomon and Wojtek Fibak before losing to Clerc. He was the tour's hot rookie, winning $45,615. This year he has moved from 245th on the computer rankings to 27th. He has won $64,900.

More important, he has been in with the big boys and learned this: he can be one of them.

He lost in the fourth round of the French Open to Jimmy Connors. Connors, his idol. Connors, who won in three sets, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6. And then Purcell lost in the second round at Wimbledon to Bjorn Borg, 6-4, 6-1, 6-3.

"After those matches, I had to ask myself, 'Did I play bad? Or did I just get my butt beat by better players?'" Purcell said. "I got my butt beat. I played well. I played well enough that I an say I can play with them. What I learned is that I have to play better on the big points."

That was his refrain yesterday afternoon, too, after the victory over Telscher. He had lost five or six in a row to Telscher, he said dating back to his single victory at age 13. But he played better on the big points this time. He knows you don't beat Connors and Borg until you learn to beat Eliot Teltscher, and he is on his way.

Life has meaning this week.