The presence of Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker and Jimmy Connors in the Sovran Bank/D.C. National Tennis Classic has sold out tickets and packed in crowds. But, for the young players fated by the luck of the draw to meet the top three seeds in the early rounds, it's been a losing experience, with the emphasis on the experience.

"I wanted to play him so bad," said David Wheaton with a big smile as sweat dripped off his face after yesterday's 6-7 (7-5), 6-3, 6-2 loss in the third round to Lendl, the No. 1 player in the world and the top seed here.

"I'm really disappointed I lost in that kind of situation {after the first-set tie breaker}, but . . . I have nothing to be ashamed of, because he was supposed to beat me . . . It was so fun. I had the best time of my life."

Wheaton, 18, had some fun with Lendl in the third set, using the changeover after losing the first three games to switch to a shirt identical to Lendl's familiar wavy stripes. The crowd, which had started cheering for the underdog, broke into laughter while Lendl stood with hands on hips in mock disapproval.

Not all the big three's opponents were that at ease.

"Connors and the circumstances -- I was nervous," said Kelly Jones after his second-round, 6-3, 6-4 loss to the No. 3 seed. "After a while, you're just playing and your instincts take over."

But instincts are rarely enough when a youngster is facing one of the top players in the world.

Against Connors, Jones lost a point when he stopped playing it before it was over. "That was a weird point," he said. "That was a very strange point. You don't know what happens. I couldn't believe I did that. I even surprised myself."

After he became Becker's first victim, Richard Matuszewski also acknowledged the nervousness. "I'm not that experienced that I play in front of them {big crowds} every day," he said. "I was a little nervous."

That's one of the differences -- Lendl, Becker and Connors do play in front of those big crowds every day.

Wheaton is still playing junior tournaments before heading for Stanford this fall and is ranked 428th in the world. Jones, 23, turned pro after last year's U.S. Open. Jones ranks 123rd. A pro for just over a year, Matuszewski's highest ranking was 88th in the world last November and he's now 132nd. At 22, he's three years older than Becker, but they haven't exactly been moving in the same circles.

"Hey, that's a perfect position to be in," said Connors. "Playing with nothing to lose; that's a perfect position to be in, that's what you beg for."

It's an opportunity to become acclimated to bigger crowds and heavier pressure. And perhaps most valuable of all, it's an opportunity to gauge themselves against the current standard of excellence in their sport.

"Obviously, it shows I can play with a very good player like Ivan Lendl," said Wheaton. "He's better than me; you can see that in the rankings -- No. 1 in the world." He considered that for a second. "He's much better than me, actually. I have to keep working very hard. I have to be in better shape, too."

Jones can see improvement in his performance in Washington -- he lost to John McEnroe, 6-1, 6-1, in his first match as a professional. "I've gotten more comfortable about it," he said. " . . . I'm on my way. I can look ahead from here."

With the U.S. Open just over a month away, these meetings with top players can provide a blueprint for improving their results.

"I have to practice a lot, play a lot of matches and get a couple better draws than this," said Matuszewski.

After all, experience is great, but winning's not so bad, either.