The ball hung there, big and yellow and optic, like the moon that hung over Rock Creek Stadium. Jimmy Arias had thrust himself back into the match with a forehand that dares to be great, a forehand that is launched, not hit. Now, with the match even at a set each and Jose-Luis Clerc leading, 1-0, in the third, Arias found himself once again at break point.
He already had saved two in the game with a lovely backhand top-spin lob and a backhand cross-court winner. And now it was 30-40. He served deep to Clerc's forehand and the return came back to him just where he expected it. Arias launched himself and the ball into the humid, night air.
The call caught the tape and hung there, seemingly forever.
The match hung in the balance. "It was up there awhile," Arias said. "I waited to see where it went."
Ever so softly, it fell on Arias' side of the net. Clerc had the first break of the set, the psychological break of the match.
"Hang in there, Jimmy," someone in the crowd cried.
Arias hung his head.
Clerc, the No. 1 seed, won the D.C. National Bank Classic last night, 6-3, 3-6, 6-0, his second triumph here in three years. Last summer, when Arias beat him in the semifinals, he did it with a shot off the wood at the net, a shot as lucky as his netted forehand was unlucky last night. "That's tennis," Clerc said. "That's life."
Clerc, who is 24-3 at Rock Creek Stadium, had reached the semifinals for the last five years. It took him 2 hours 1 minute to win the first-place prize money, $34,000. Arias, the No. 2 seed, earned $17,000.
Last week, in Boston, Clerc beat Arias in the final of the U.S. Pro Championships, 6-3, 6-1. Arias could not be sure what that meant. Had he played badly? Was Clerc too good for him that night, or too good, period?
Last night's match may have provided some of the answers. "I wasn't sure if I played badly (in Boston)," Arias said. "I wasn't making errors. I was hitting short. He was coming up with a lot of winners, but I was letting him hit those. I showed myself at least I have a chance. If you can get a set, you can get two."
Arias resolved to be more aggressive last night, not to let Clerc dictate the flow of play. Clerc resolved not to play to Arias' forehand. But Arias ran around his backhand as often as he could. Clerc won because at this stage of his career--he is 25 and ranked ninth--he has more weapons at his disposal.
Though both of them are infinitely more comfortable whaling away from the base line (that's how they earn their living), Clerc's serve is bigger and his volley surer. Arias made some brilliant shots with that forehand of his. But he almost had to make brilliant shots from the base line on every point to win.
"He runs too much," Clerc said. "He tries to play only the forehand. It's hard when you play only one side like he played tonight . . . He needs to change a little bit, his backhand. He has a good backhand. He likes to play only his forehand. If he's going to play guys like me or (Ivan) Lendl, guys who try to hit balls on every point, he needs to run too much like tonight. I think he lost because he tried to play only one side."
In the first set, Arias was under pressure constantly (he made only 51 percent of his first serves). He saved three break points the first time he served--playing to Clerc's backhand, forcing errors--and four the next time. Serving at 3-4, he fell behind again, 15-40. This time, the pressure proved too much. Clerc broke on a forehand cross-court passing shot as Arias stood helpless at the net.
"Usually on a big point, you try to do something the guy's not expecting you to," said Arias, who is ranked 11th in the world. "I don't think he expected me to come to net. I thought I'd catch him by surprise. He was passing unbelievably. I made the right shot."
Clerc, too, was under pressure in the first set. But he had an ace at 30-30 in the first game, another one at 30-30 in the seventh and a third to give him the ad in that same game.
In the second set, Arias began to exert more pressure. His returns improved, along with his ground strokes. There were fewer errors, better placement on his shots. "He played unbelievably in the second set," Clerc said. "He didn't miss one forehand."
A searing forehand down the line that Clerc could not reach at net gave him his first break point in the fourth game. Clerc saved that with a penetrating serve to Arias' forehand that was returned long. He saved two more before Arias regained the advantage on an unforced forehand error. On the fourth break point, Arias sent a lethal forehand down the line that jerked Clerc out of position and then crossed him with a forehand winner.
Arias led, 3-1.
He broke again later to make it 5-1. But, Clerc broke back in the seventh game and who knows how much that took out of Arias?
Arias served for the set again at 5-3 and fell behind, 15-30, a dangerous place to be. A service winner made it 30-30. A forehand cross-court passing shot made it 40-30. Arias raised his arms to the capacity crowd of 6,100, then served out the set.
It was anyone's match. "I thought I had a chance," said Arias, who won two consecutive tournaments in Italy this spring, including the Italian Open. "I played a good game. I was fired up. I was getting used to his serve. In the second set, I was smacking some returns."
"I feel really, really nervous," Clerc said. "I tried to see my coach. He said, 'Take your time, take it easy.' Now, I've got to play my game. If I lost, I lost."
Clerc played his game and played it flawlessly. The power and precision of his ground strokes demanded too much of a response.
The effort seemed to tire Arias. He said his concentration wandered. Luck may have had a hand in giving Clerc the crucial break to go up, 2-0, but he was good enough to make his luck.
He held for 3-0, serving three consecutive service winners (he made 70 percent of his first serves and had four aces for the match). He was a storm gaining strength.
At 40-30 in the third game, as his concentration and the match began to slip away from him, Arias lunged for a vicious forehand cross court. His racket flew out of his hand and into the box where Clerc's coach sat watching. "He tried to kill my coach, I know," Clerc, said smiling.
No damage was done. CAPTION: Picture 1, Jose-Luis Clerc winds up to hit a smash in his championship showdown with Jimmy Arias. Clerc won the Classic title and $34,000 first prize; Picture 2, Jimmy Arias has his eyes on the ball, but was a three-set loser. Photos By Joel Richardson--The Washington Post