Twenty-two times on Sunday in the championship match of the Grand Prix Masters, Vitas Gerulaitis stripped all the tape off the handle of his racket and elaborately replaced it with a foot of fresh white adhesive.

The ritual was identical on every change of sides. Just as the ump said, "Time," the last careful wrap would be in place. And Gerulaitis would again have avoided his worst enemy. Instead of spending those minutes thinking, he had escaped his own thoughts, as nearly as possible.

In most sports, performers reach a point where their ability to evolve seems to calcify. In the abstract, they all see breakthroughs ahead. In reality, it doesn't happen. What's left is trying to fight the slippage.

In men's tennis, where 12 years old is a formative age and the No. 1 fellow in the world may be 21, that calcification sets in fast.

That is why the Masters was absorbing. John McEnroe, 22, and Ivan Lendl, 21--the top-ranked players in the world--saw before them in Gerulaitis, 27, the perfect example of an athlete who, although in his prime, seemed past the point of ever reaching a higher level of excellence.

Gerulaitis couldn't escape his tennis past. Not ritual, not veteran strategy, not a personal hot streak, could take him the last yard in his four-hour marathon with Lendl. Even when victory seemed unavoidable--leading two sets to none with a double break point to go up two breaks in the third set--Gerulaitis found a way to slide back to his familiar place: runner-up.

Gerulaitis reminds McEnroe and Lendl that, though the world thinks them young, they're close to the finished tennis product. Improvements in temperament (McEnroe) and technique (Lendl) which aren't mastered soon may stay a mystery.

In the wake of his near-fight with Jimmy Connors, McEnroe spoke movingly last week about his desire to improve his conduct and win public affection. "I know I've dug myself a deep hole," said McEnroe, as charmingly candid off court as he is overbearing on it. "But, I think I can change. If I don't, I'll quit."

How long can McEnroe, now that he's No. 1, maintain his emotional balance if his almost unsurpassable successes of 1981 bring him more pain than pleasure?

There's little evidence McEnroe can tame himself and still play his best. Yet, if his troubled face tells the truth, his present state of tennis-versus-life anxiety seems almost insupportable.

Also, McEnroe, like Bjorn Borg, reached the top by inflicting his style of play--one of "piques and volleys" according to one wit--on other players, rather than by adjusting his game to them. Now, in Lendl, there's a player who may beat him consistently in catty-cornered wars. "You can't play corner to corner against Lendl, like McEnroe tries to do," says Gerulaitis. "He'll run you ragged."

That's been the story of the last three Lendl-McEnroe matches.

Lendl has won 36 straight matches and is momentary master of McEnroe. Yet the example of Gerulaitis' arrested development holds a message for Lendl, too. Though the computer says Lendl is on the verge of No. 1, the distance yet to travel may be greater than it seems.

The first prize of tennis is Wimbledon, and Lendl has performed pathetically there. Asked by a Briton what he thought of the championships, Lendl said, "You should change it to clay."

If you're going to have a mental block, Wimbledon is a bad choice. Lendl abhors volleying and is unnerved on his topspin ground strokes by low, skidding grass hops. Despite his similarities to Borg, nix Wimbledon for Lendl.

Another Lendl barrier is Connors, who has beaten him eight straight times. Until Lendl can stop being intimidated, he'll always need outside help to win a grand slam event.

Finally, Gerulaitis demonstrated in the Masters that much of Lendl's sting can be muted by a diet of cut backhands to Lendl's backhand corner. Lendl refuses to attempt backhand approach shots as a response to even the weakest of these nasty chips. Also, he admits, "That shot looks easy to return, but it is difficult . . . And it's almost impossible to hit a passing shot off it."

That quote will go on every opponent's mental bulletin board.

In tennis, perhaps more acutely than in any other sport, the style of the player and the character of the man eventually tend to converge. In the moody, imaginative McEnroe and the stolid, workaholic Lendl, tennis may have two characters who are already as fixed on their tracks as Gerulaitis.

McEnroe and Lendl may have gone further up the hill than Gerulaitis has managed, but both still have questions to answer. Can McEnroe find the personal stability necessary to be a lasting champion? Can Lendl, who has come so fast in two years, take the last steps to the top?

These young men would be green rookies in the NFL or the major leagues. But, in the accelerated world of tennis, they're much older than they think.