His personal quest began in 1977. Sifting through an edition of Handball magazine, Naty Alvarado discovered the ultimate handball record -- Joe Platak's nine national championships won in the 1930s.

"I decided I wanted to beat that record," Alvarado said. "I thought it would be nice to have my name in the record books, with 10 championships next to it. By winning the first title {which he did in 1977}, it gave me reason to push myself to win more."

And now, 10 years after setting his sights on Platak, Alvarado has almost attained his goal. As the 37th U.S. Handball Association Championships unfold in Baltimore this week, Alvarado is going for his ninth title.

He moved closer to it by easily defeating John Duggan, 21-4, 21-3, in a second-round match yesterday, advancing to the quarterfinals.

"I never knew I'd be able to accomplish five or six, but things started to come along," he said. "Winning the seventh felt real good. Joe Platak won his title before the USHA was created {under the Amateur Athletic Union}. Only two players, Fred Lewis and Jimmy Jacobs, have won six under the U.S. Handball Association. So I have the USHA record."

His domination in handball in the 1980s is similar to Edwin Moses' in the 400-meter hurdles and Wayne Gretzky's in the National Hockey League. Since losing to Lewis in the 1981 championship finals, Alvarado has won five consecutive titles and 52 of his last 64 pro events. Some people on the tour consider him the greatest player of all time.

"The titles help, but they don't necessarily mean that I'm the greatest," he said. "Lewis and Jacobs were great and they only won six. I'm not doing this for others to judge me, I'm doing it for myself, to prove to myself that I can do what I set out to do."

One could never have guessed his future upon witnessing his first experience with handball, back in Juarez, Mexico. At 12, Alvarado went to see his father play at a local court. Soon, he tried the game.

"I couldn't do it, though, because the ball was too heavy and hard," he said. "Since I couldn't hit it, I just watched my father play all the time. When I picked it back up a year later, watching him play let me learn the bounces the ball takes off the wall and how to hit it."

Although its popularity is growing in Canada and Mexico, handball then was far better established in the United States. So Alvarado, tired of beating up on his Mexican competition, moved his family to Hesperia, Calif., a hotbed for the sport, in 1976.

"It was a hard move but I'm glad I did it," he said. "For me to improve my game, I had to move because Los Angeles is where the competition is."

Now he sells life and disability insurance, which he enjoys "because I get to meet so many people, some of whom play handball." He also is a spokesman for Saranac, a company that manufactures "El Gato" handball gloves. Alvarado's nickname on tour is "El Gato," The Cat; he expects to become an American citizen within the next year.

Though he is not making big money playing the game, his sponsorship, prize winnings and his insurance business have made him financially secure. As a result, Alvarado said he will not be devastated if he does not break Platak's record.

"The combination of my age and the youth of the other players makes it tough," he said. "Ten years ago, it was tough because I was just learning. Now, my age is a factor. I never used to worry about injuries, now I do."

Three years ago, Alvarado, now 32, tore ligaments in his right elbow and decided against surgery. Instead, he rested for six months and was healthy enough to win the 1985 national championships in Houston. But he reinjured the elbow and had to take more time off. He says the elbow now is 90 percent healthy, but the injury has forced him to alter his style of play.

"I used to play a shooter's game, go for the kill shots a lot. But now, in the last three years since my injury, I've changed to a finesse game because I can't overpower the ball. I play more defensively."

He respects the competition. Poncho Monreal, the second seed; Jon Kendler; John Bike -- Alvarado was wary of them all. Kendler beat Bike yesterday, 21-3, 17-21 (11-6).

"There are a lot of kids playing good ball," Alvarado said. ". . . Poncho is in the other bracket. I'm taking it one step at a time, worrying about the guys I've got to play in the first rounds."