The world's sixth-ranked tennis player wore his watch during a match yesterday. Hackers cheered. We keep track of the fleeing minutes because after an hour our serving arm turns to lead and our legs become spaghetti. We never raise the bet after 53 minutes. Besides, a good way to get your face broke is to stay on a court when your time is up. So Jose-Luis Clerc, wearing his wristwatch, became Our Hero.

For a minute, anyway.

Until we asked him about the watch.

What a great story it could have been.

Clerc could have said, "I wear my watch because my right arms turns to lead after 53 minutes and I must serve left-handed then." We dream of the day we switch racket hands against a competitor most foul, serving only aces with the fresh weapon.

Or Clerc might have said, "I wear my watch because, in matches such as this, I sometimes fall asleep and so I set my snooze alarm for an hour." Such confidence, such elan.

Or maybe he had to pick up a pizza on the way home.

Had Jose-Luis Clerc said any of that, we might have carried him from the stadium on our shoulders.

Alas, here's what he said. "I have," he said, smiling, "a contract with Cartier's."

I guess that means he isn't the pro from Timex.

Nor should he be, really, for Jose-Luis Clerc is a classy guy -- 22 years old, tall, lean, curly-haired with twinkling brown eyes that would melt a lady's heart from the far service line. No Timex clunker for this guy. Give him a Cartier special, at $2,500, especially when he is on one of the hot streaks that have raised him to No. 6 in the world behind Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl and Gene Mayer.

Seldom has he been hotter than right now. Last week he won the U.S. Indoor at the Boston suburb of Brookline. So yesterday's 6-1, 6-3 victory over unseeded Stanislov Birner was his 12th straight in two weeks. Earlier this year he won 16 straight, winning the Florence and Italian opens, and is 33-3 since May.

Of those three losses, only one has come on a clay surface such as that at the Rock Creek Tennis Stadium, where Clerc has reached the final of the Washington Star's $200,000 tournament. On clay, maybe only Borg and Lendl are Clerc's superiors.

If a mad Frankenstein wanted to piece together a perfect clay court player, the doctor would make his creation about 6 foot 1 and 175 pounds. He would be quick. He would have great strength in his upper body. With all that, the monster could get every shot and could keep hammering deep until the other guy's legs turned to spaghetti.

The doctor could name his creation Jose-Luis Clerc.

"I like it very much clay court," Clerc said, his English delivered with a spin. "I feeling so well this court."

Poor Stanislov Birner had no chance yesterday. Unseeded, in the tournament only after winning three matches in a qualifying tournament, the Czech was exhausted before the loss. This was his eighth match in a week. "Three or four times," he said when asked if his success here were so surprising that he had to change his airplane reservations out of town.

"He hit ball very hard," Birner said of Clerc. "Topspin on them. Serve is good, too."

A winner five times last year, four times a semifinalist, Clerc began this year slowly. He lost his first four matches.

He had an excuse.

He got married.

In January, he married the girl back in Buenos Aires, Annalie. After taking January and February off, Clerc lost four straight times, including twice on clay to mediocrities named Bruce Manson and Jose Higueras.

"I married. I change my life," Clerc said, explaining. "Not really concentrating for my tennis."

How did marriage change your life?

When you're 22 and your eyes melt hearts and you're wearing Cartier's stuff in Paris and Stockholm and Washington, marriage changes your social schedule.

Clerc didn't exactly say all that. What he did was roll his eyes heavenward, as if asking deliverance from the questions some people ask.

And he said, "More quiet." A nice wink.

By May, Clerc's tennis was very loud indeed. He rose to his finest moment in victory at the Italian Open. He did it the hard way, beating the national hero, Adriano Panatta, in the quarterfinals.

With 10,000 Italians chanting "Adriano . . . Adriano," Clerc was down, 6-5, on Panatta's serve in the deciding set.

But Clerc broke Panatta. And then won the tie breaker right there in Foro Italico. Next he defeated Lendl and Victor Pecci for the championship. The following week, in the French, he reached the semifinals before losing to Lendl.

On the grass of Wimbledon, Clerc made it only to the third round, getting that far only after winning, 9-7, in the fifth set of a first-round match.

He hasn't lost since.

At 18, Clerc fell through a window in Dinard, France, where he was playing in a small tournament. His left leg needed 33 stitches in the thigh, and he didn't play again for eight months.This was in 1976, when Guillermo Vilas, another Argentine, was about to become the world's best player. Since then, a Vilas-Clerc rivalry has come up, and while the men are Davis Cup partners, they are not buddies.

With Vilas also in the semifinals here, someone asked Clerc, "You have beaten Vilas just once, haven't you?"

"Twice," he said quickly.

Who would you rather play in the final -- Vilas or Andres Gomez?

"Nobody," he said, laughing. "No, no, Vilas. Play biggest star. I think it is more important."

Someone wanted to know, is it true Clerc is still ranked No. 2 in Argentina behind Vilas even though ranked ahead of him, 6 to 7, on the pros' computer?

"Ranking in world is important," Clerc said, his brown eyes cold now, "not ranking in my country."