The surface change at Rock Creek Tennis Center has changed the face of the Sovran Bank/D.C. National Tennis Classic.

Only 15 of the 56 players in last year's clay court event returned this year to play on the new hardcourts. Only three of last year's 16 seeded players returned -- Jimmy Arias (No. 5 last year, No. 7 this year and beaten in the quarterfinals by Ivan Lendl), Aaron Krickstein (No. 9 last year, No. 6 this year until he withdrew with an apparent stress fracture of his left tibia) and Jaime Yzaga (No. 13 last year, No. 11 this year and beaten in the first round by Bill Scanlon).

Among those not coming back was defending champion Karel Novacek of Czechoslovakia. His 6-1, 7-6 (7-4) victory over Thierry Tulasne (seeded second last year and another nonreturner) is the only title of the 22-year-old's career.

Instead of coming to Washington this week, Novacek went to the Dutch Open for the first of three straight weeks of playing on clay. He was upset in the first round there by Karl Uwe Steeb of West Germany, 6-1, 4-6, 6-1.

Novacek was a quarterfinalist at Philadelphia in February and, in perhaps his best performance since leaving here, he became the second men's player to win a Grand Slam event match without giving up a game when he beat Eduardo Bengoechea of Argentina, 6-0, 6-0, 6-0 in the second round of the French Open. The first was Nikki Spear of Yugoslavia in 1968.

Of last year's top four seeds, No. 1 Andres Gomez, No. 2 Tulasne and No. 4 Guillermo Vilas took the week off from Grand Prix play. No. 3 Martin Jaite was the No. 2 seed in the Dutch Open, where he lost in the semifinals.

"Sometimes I say, 'What the hell am I still doing out here, fighting this hard. On the other hand, I answer myself, 'Because I still like it.' " -- Jimmy Connors.

The state of American tennis has been a frequent topic of conversation and often a sore subject for the American players. Connors and Gilbert have been among those who blame the U.S. Tennis Association for a history of failing to develop the talents of junior players.

"We're 15 years behind," said Gilbert, who has twice played Davis Cup for the United States. "I'm not that good a player that I'm going to step into {John} McEnroe's or Connors' shoes . . .

"I think the Americans {the fans} have got to rally behind the Americans {the players} we got now, because we need help."

An optimistic view came from Boris Becker, whose two singles victories last weekend in Hartford, Conn., were instrumental in putting the United States out of contention for the 1988 Cup.

"America used to have the No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 players in the world. Now they don't and they think there is nobody," Becker said. "That's not true. They have many guys between Nos. 10 and 20 -- Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, yes, but I'm not talking about that. I am talking about the younger generation. It's a matter of time.

"A No. 1, you can not make; a No. 1 makes himself."