Last year Jimmy Arias upset Jose-Luis Clerc in the semifinals of the D.C National Bank Classic and bolted into the bright lights of pro tennis.

"I think I gave him a little confidence," said Clerc, wryly.

Arias was 17, unseeded and ranked 79th in the world. Clerc was seeded second, ranked fifth, and had just won two consecutive tournaments.

And, who was your breakthrough against, someone asked?.

"Borg," Clerc said.

Pause.

"But I never beat him," Clerc roared.

Tonight at 7:45 Clerc and Arias will meet in the final of the D.C. National Bank Classic. It will be the third match of a budding rivalry.

Since that sultry Sunday afternoon, Arias' ranking has risen to No. 11, while Clerc fell out of the top 10 in 1983 for a few months, the first time in four years. "It was," Arias said at the time, "the kind of match that starts careers."

Their careers were intertwined, and in some strange ways, parallel.

Last summer Arias' name began popping up at tournaments: the final in Indianapolis and victory in the Tokyo Open in the fall, his first Grand Prix victory. He took off December and January. When he returned, he failed to get past the second round in seven consecutive tournaments. He also experimented with a new midsize racket. This spring, he went back to a standard-size racket and won a tournament in Florence and the Italian Open back to back.

This year Clerc swooned faster than the lovelorn in a B movie. A midyear switch from a standard size to a midsize caused him months of anguish.

The bottom dropped lower in the French Open after Clerc lost on his beloved clay in the second round to Fernando Luna. He was so depressed that he told his coach, Patricio Rodriguez, that he was considering retiring.

A first-round loss at Wimbledon to Claudio Panatta added misery to misery.

The summertime blues were blown away last week in Boston when Clerc, back to a standard racket, demolished Arias, 6-3, 6-1. How sweet it was for Clerc.

"Basically, the time we played here I got on the offensive right away," Arias said. "In Boston I didn't have any feel. I wasn't hitting my shots well. So when we started the match I just wanted to get the ball in play, get some touch. He was putting everything away.

Clerc says he was tired last year, after having played in Europe just before Washington.

Rodriguez said, "Jose was playing the best I've seen him play in a long time . . . Last week he played like he should always play. He had everything: his ground strokes, the power, the speed. He should play that way 80 percent of the time.

"I don't know what happened last year. It must have been the other 20 percent," Rodriguez chuckled.