In a way, they had been waiting for this afternoon for years.

They had played so often in practice, spent long, dusty afternoons in the Florida sun together. They were boys with talent, away from home, learning about friendship and rivalry.

"I played him a set when I was 12 in the national indoors," Eric Korita said, remembering the first time they played.

"Seven-6," Jimmy Arias said.

And now? "He's a little bigger and I'm a little bigger," Korita said. "There's not too much difference."

It was no different yesterday. Arias, the No. 2 seed in the D.C. National Bank Classic, won, survived really, 7-6 (7-4), 6-3, though he won only five points off Korita's serve before the first-set tie breaker. It was the first time they had met in a tournament.

Arias, the No. 2 seed, will play top-seeded Jose-Luis Clerc in the final tonight. Last year, Arias defeated Clerc in the semis and lost to Ivan Lendl in the final. Last week, Clerc won their second encounter in the final of the U.S. Pro Tennis Championships.

Clerc, who won this tournament in 1981, had little problem with Mario Martinez, the 15th seed, winning, 6-3, 6-2. He stayed back, keeping the ball in play, praying for errors or openings. But Clerc was too strong, too experienced, too lucky.

In the fifth game of the first set, Clerc mis-hit an overhead, a clunky wood shot, that bounced back over the net as Martinez watched helplessly. Clerc went on to break and take a 4-3 lead.

Clerc broke the first time Martinez served in the second set, a game that featured the point of the week. It began with a lob over Clerc's head. He ran back underneath it, hit a miraculous forehand with his back to the net, scrambled forward to retrieve a drop shot, back for another lob, and forward to hit a backhand cross-court winner off another drop. It gave him break point. It might as well have been the match.

Arias had a much tougher time against unseeded Korita, an amateur who had never gone this far in a professional tournament before. Korita, who is ranked 234th, said he didn't want to think about the money he would have won ($8,900) or the chances he had to win. He had two break points the first time Arias served, three the second and two more when Arias served at 5-6 in the first set. He won none of them, in part because he failed to attack when he should have.

"I was a little nervous because I'm expected to win," Arias said. "Against most of the younger players, they might be a little psyched out against me because I've been out here longer. I knew he wouldn't be psyched out at all."

Still, the difference between them today was a matter of the psyche. Arias played the big points, the seven break points in the first set, better. "Mentally, I'm tougher," Arias said.

"Golden opportunities," Korita said. "A couple of those games, I let get away. It was my fault."

In one way, the things they learned about each other, growing up at Nick Bollettieri's tennis academy in Bradenton, Fla., did not prepare them for what happened yesterday. "I try a lot harder in practice than he does," Arias said. I wasn't used to his serve because he served twice as hard as he does any time in practice."

In the first set, Arias saw all he wanted of it. Though he made only 35 percent of his first serves, Korita had five aces (eight for the match and 38 for the tournament) and a wonderful second serve. "I don't know if his first serve is the best in the world but his second serve is definitely the best. Some were bouncing 10 feet over my head."

Arias had trouble returning any of them. "I never felt I was in the first set the entire time," he said.

In the 12th game, Korita had yet another golden opportunity. Three unforced errors by Arias made it 15-40. Arias, who never ever tanked a set in practice (according to Korita), who spent a childhood preparing for such moments, came up with two big serves that, Korita said, "startled me."

One return sailed long. Another, deep to his backhand, pulled Korita out of position. His next shot went wide.

They went to a tie breaker. Arias took a 5-1 lead, but Korita struggled back to 5-3. On the next point Arias tried to lob over him. Korita reached back for the overhead and failed to put it away. Wonder of wonders, Arias got to it and pushed a forehand past Korita into the open court.

"Basically, the way I hit the lob over his backhand side, I knew there was no way he could hit it to my backhand," Arias said. "It came right to me. I hit it solid."

Ironically, the tie breaker ended with an ace--by Arias.

Now, having sensed the vulnerability, Arias made the most of it. He held easily in the first game of the second set and won the first point off Korita's serve with a sizzling forehand cross-court return. He raised his fists, as if to say, "finally."

"That kind of clicked in my mind," he said. "I'm getting used to his serve."

Emboldened, he broke in that game, making a wonderous get of a lob over his head. He ran under it, did a 360-degree turn and hit a forehand winner down the line. It wasn't break point but it may have been Korita's breaking point.