There comes a point in every player's life, if he is going to make it, when he no longer aspires: he is there. For Jimmy Arias, it was a funky little wood shot at the net, an overhead backhand off Jose-Luis Clerc's best volley that landed just fair and gave him match point. Arias looked, he shrugged, he apologized. There was no need.
The unseeded Arias, 17 and ranked 79th in the world, beat No. 2 seed Clerc, who is ranked 5th in the world, because of a superb effort, not luck, in the semifinals of the D.C. National Bank Tennis Classic yesterday at Rock Creek Tennis Stadium. The score was 3-6, 6-2, 6-4. It was, Arias said, "the kind of match that starts careers."
And when it was over, Clerc shook his head, smiled and said what had become apparent to everyone: "I never saw anyone play like this in my life. I lose a lot of matches. I never ran so much like I did today . . . If he plays like this tomorrow, he will beat Ivan Lendl."
Arias will face Lendl, the No. 1 seed, in the final at 7:45 p.m. As a pro, Arias has never played in a final of a major tournament. Lendl has reached the final in 12 of 14 tournaments he has played this year.
Lendl wanted retribution from Yannick Noah, who ended his 45-game winning streak in February and beat him and the Czech Davis Cup team two weeks ago. He got it.
Coolly, efficiently, quickly--but not dispassionately--he beat Noah, 6-3, 6-3. "I wanted to beat him very badly," Lendl said. "I was very happy I won."
It's nothing personal, he said. "But there are a few guys I enjoy beating more than the rest . . . It got tense from my side in Paris during the Davis Cup. I just was very hurt at the way things were handled."
He saved his elaboration for the court. Noah never had a break point, never had more than two points off Lendl's serve. He never had a chance.
Lendl's passing shots were impeccable; his first serves on target. "When you are down like I was, it is difficult to think about winning," Noah said. "I was waiting for a second serve. I am still waiting."
Just as Clerc kept waiting for the kid to fold. It didn't happen. Little Clerc did after the first set worked (Arias saw to that). And Arias made him work. Time after time, Clerc, who had won 19 straight matches, looked over at his coach, first for advice, then for solace.
"I tried to play," Clerc said. "But I can't. He played so good. I had no chance to beat Jimmy Arias . . . I put a ball long, it came back a winner. I say, 'Okay now, put on the pressure.' I put on the pressure, go to the net and get passed. I lob, it comes back overhead. Cross-court, down the line; he just played really, really good today."
Arias demurred: "I never thought I was going to win this match."
Over and over, Arias talked about how much stronger Clerc is, how much he has to learn, how far he has to go. But he came a long way yesterday.
Early in the match, the two exchanged breaks, errors and ground strokes (they are aggressive, although not serve-and-volleyers). Three times in the first two sets, Arias broke, only to have Clerc break back. It seemed Clerc was on the verge of asserting himself, especially after he broke in the seventh and ninth games to win the first set.
But in the second set, Arias, who usually weighs 150 pounds (135 now), grew stronger and bolder. He repeatedly sent forehands deep to Clerc's backhand. "My forehand, I can keep a guy off guard with it," he said.
Indeed. Most of them went for winners, two in the fifth game of the second set giving him a break at 3-2. This time, for the first time in the match, Arias held serve after a break. Soon the set was his and the match was even.
Clerc served in the first game of the third set and struggled, losing a 40-0 advantage. Arias no longer was conceeding anything. Finally Clerc held, and in the next game, when he gained a break point on a forehand deep to the upstart's backhand (a taste of his own medicine), it seemed that maybe Arias was through. He wasn't.
Arias broke to go up, 3-2. For the first time, he said, "I thought I had a good chance (to win)."
The match had so many crescendos. Another followed. Arias served. Six times they went to deuce. Four times Arias had game points and lost them. Four times Clerc had break points and squandered them.
There were so many pretty points, and Arias would not yield. Finally, he double-faulted to give Clerc his fifth break point. On the 20th point, Clerc stood his (unaccustomed) ground at the net and dropped a short forehand cross-court volley. Arias, who had run down one of these 14 points before to gain the advantage temporarily, raced across the court. This time, his forehand went long and Clerc had the break. It was 3 all.
"I knew he was pretty relieved to get back that break," Arias said. "I thought maybe he'd let up."
Arias said he wanted to get ahead quickly and he did at 15-40, "when Clerc made a couple of errors he shouldn't have made."
On break point, Arias ran him all over the court, putting Clerc on the defensive with deep, deeper and deepest ground strokes. Then Arias crossed him up with a backhand drop shot. Clerc netted it. Arias had broken back for the lead 4-3.
Each held, and then they went to the side for a much needed break. "I've felt peppier," Arias said after it was over. He was too tired to be awed, "too tired to be nervous," he said. "I just wanted to win it there. I didn't want to play any more."
And so he made an end, a quick end, a love game on a cross-court forehand, an overhead set up by two deep forehands, and then that funny little wood shot off Clerc's reflex volley. "He hit it so quick," Arias said. "I just swung my arm in the air. I don't know where it went till this day."
But it seems clear where Arias is headed. Soon, he will no longer be the kid. "I'm catching up," he said.