Many athletes believe fervently in the principle of separation of sport and state. Jose-Luis Clerc of Argentina could not--did not try to--separate himself from the fortune of his countrymen in the conflict over the Falkland Islands.

Understandably, he declined to play at Wimbledon because of the war between England and Argentina. Unlike American athletes, who chafed at not being able to participate in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, Clerc gave no thought to going. "It is a different history, different from political problems when your country is at war," he said. "The first thing I said is, 'I don't want to go to Wimbledon. I respect my country. I don't feel I could play 100 percent at Wimbledon.' "

In the weeks and months before Wimbledon, Clerc struggled, losing in the first round of the WCT Championships in Dallas, where he said one spectator yelled, "Go to the Malvinas."

"These people may be joking," he said, but still it bothered him a little bit.

Clerc, who served three months in the army and is still in the reserves, says he would have gone back in the service if he had been ordered.

"He was worried," said his coach, Patricio Rodriguez. "He was all the time asking me to translate newspapers for him . . . There could have been something unconscious. He started playing badly when he started getting worried, when the fleet started going that way."

There were other factors: not enough preparation, too many tournaments, perhaps. "I'm not happy on the court, so I don't play happy," Clerc said. "I lost a few matches and I lost my confidence."

One week in Florence, Clerc, who is ranked fifth in the world, lost in the quarterfinals to Marco Ostajo, who was ranked No. 172 last year. A week later, in the Italian Open, he lost in the second round to Thierry Tulasne. "I'm not saying I played badly because my country had problems," Clerc said. "But it is something that affected me, my country, my friends, my family. I am from Argentina. My head is working. It's really hard. I start to play bad when the situation was bad. The situation got better, I play better."

In the last month, Clerc has been as hot as the summer. He has won the last three tournaments he has entered (18 straight matches, including those this week), beating Guillermo Vilas, a countryman, in Gstaad, Switzerland, 6-1, 6-3, 6-2. He beat Vilas, Rodriguez said, "by playing well, not by Vilas playing badly; this really gave him his confidence back."

Clerc has had summer streaks like this before. Last year, he won four tournaments in a row, including the D.C. event where he beat Vilas (a streak of 27 matches), before losing in the round of 16 at the U.S. Open. This year, he is doing things differently. Clerc will not play doubles and will not go home to Argentina in order to save his energy. Clerc thinks he is playing better now than he did last year. "I run much better," he said. "I'm playing different points on the court: topspin, slice, going to the net."

Clerc believes, and so do most of his opponents, that he is preeminent on clay. The question is, can he become a preeminent all-surface player? "It is pretty tough to do that," Clerc said. "When you play really, really well on one court, it is difficult to play well on the other. Only one can do that: Borg. The others"--he shrugged--"like McEnroe, he plays really well on fast and not so good on clay."

Of course, as Rodriguez said, tapping his head, "It is risky up there and technically" to try it. Has Clerc decided to do so? "Sometimes, I have to make the decisions for him," Rodriguez said. "He has the potential of being good anywhere . . . Of course, he has to make the decision within himself: 'I have to try to be good on this stuff.' I'm sure he wants to be."

Yannick Noah, who is Clerc's opposite, a serve-and-volleyer, as well as his friend, said, "I don't think he is a fast-court player. He has a good serve, so he can win some matches. Maybe if he change his game, if he volleys better."

Few players are better liked on the tour than Clerc. Noah says, "He is very simple. There are not many players like him on the circuit. He is a great guy. He is still with us."

Noah arched his eyebrows and gazed upward in the direction of the prima donnas. "He is not up there."

Asked for a capsule biography, Clerc said, "I am Jose-Luis. I am 23. I am married. I have a little boy. I love them and I love tennis."

Pablo Arraya, a young player who was born in Argentina and now lives in Peru, says, "He is not cocky."

And never has been, says Rodriguez, who has known him since he was 16. "He was very insecure," Rodriguez said. "I used to tell him, 'We'll do this and we'll do that.' He would look at me and say, 'You're crazy.' "

"Why? Most of the kids in South America are like that. It's different from America. Americans are overconfident. They teach you here, you're the best. You always win wars, you win everything. In South America, you know you are good, but you don't know if you are that good against others."

Rodriguez thinks last year's Davis Cup final between the U.S. and Argentina may have been a turning point. "He (Clerc) played Tanner and McEnroe," he said. "He really was the second-best. He almost did it (beating McEnroe). He realized there he could make it."