One top seed will try to make history, the other will try to recreate it and each will have to contend with a strong second seed when the 37th U.S. Handball Association Championships begin today at the Merritt Athletic Club in Baltimore.

The tournament's name can be disregarded. This will be an international competition, with players from Canada, Mexico, Ireland and Panama included in the field of 600.

Play in the 22 divisions begins at 8:30 a.m. and continues through the week, with the women's final scheduled for Friday at 10:30 a.m. and the men's final set for next Saturday at 3 p.m.

Naty Alvarado, the world's top-ranked player, will be seeking his ninth national championship. He's chasing a legend -- Joe Platak, the only player to win nine titles.

"Winning the ninth is very important to me because, without the ninth, I can't win the 10th, which has been my goal the entire time," Alvarado said.

Rosemary Belleni, the top seed in the women's division, will be bidding for her fifth national championship of the decade, but her first since 1984. Belleni was injured in 1985 and lost to Peanut Motal in the final last year.

For Alvarado, who won his first national championship in 1977, there might be a problem in his pursuit of Platak, and that's Poncho Monreal, one of only two men to defeat Alvarado since 1981. Considered by many to be Alvarado's heir apparent, Monreal has the youth -- he's 22, Alvarado is 32 -- and athletic ability to match Alvarado. Alvarado's edge is experience and the fact that Monreal could be tired by the time he faces him: Monreal also plays doubles, in which he's the top seed with partner John Kendler.

Other contenders in the men's field are John Sabo (seeded fifth), who lost to Alvarado in the 1984 final, and Fred Lewis (seventh), who is the last person to beat Alvarado in the national championships, in 1981.

Belleni's main competition is expected to come from Leann Tyson, the second seed. Motal, the two-time defending champion, is skipping this year's tournament because of her impending marriage.

Tyson is highly skilled, but has been playing for only four years.

Roger Berry of Silver Spring, in the 35-and-over division, is the only local player among the favorites. Berry finished among the top 16 in the last five national championships.

The other favorite is Pat Kirby, 51, of Ireland. Kirby has won six U.S. titles in the masters division -- for players 40 and over.