The rumor (circulated by L'Equipe, the French sports daily) was that President Valery Giscard d'Estaing asked to play doubles with his private coach against Bjorn Borg and Guillermas Vilas. The answer (according to newcaster Philippe Labro) was that the champions would trade a few balls but would not go for a whole match -- at which point the president reportedly dropped the whole idea. Still, some people claimed the match did take place.

True or false, that anecdote illustrates the new French love affair with tennis. Once a dignified gentleman's sport, played in white flannels with courteous "ready, go" style, tennis, as seen in the recent French Open at Roland Garros, has evolved into a cross between a bullfight and Roman games. r

Off court, the game has also attracted a number of social, political, business and show biz figures, with no end of noncelebrity tennis lovers. No generation gap here. The crowd is split between elderly men, who still remember the good old days of Borotra, and young people in jeans and sweat shirts.

Figures talk. The open tennis championships, which closed with the victory of Borg over Victor Pecci, drew 200,000 people this season, compared with 70,000, four years ago. The daily attendance hovered between 18,000 and 22,000 and despite the recent enlargement of Central Court by 4,000 seats, tickets were being sold undercover for more than $200 each.

The number of tennis players has grown in the same proportion. In 1970, the number of players affiliated with the French Tennis Federation was 167,110. Today it's around 500,000 and tennis fascination reaches a broad spectrum of Frenchmen.

At the open, in fact, two men at both ends of the economic ladder were moaning that they could not make the Pecci-Jimmy Connors match. One was Jacques Darmon, director of Boussac-Saint Freres (Willot), one of the biggest multimillion-dollar conglomerates in Europe, which owns, among other things, Korvettes. The other was a young cab driver who said he played regularly on public courts "that cost me 500 francs a year."

A great many big French firms have added tennis courts for their employes and winter ski resorts, such as Les Arcs, become tennis resorts in summer. The results are both funny and lively. According to actress Juliette Mills, who was hired as public-relations agent for Roland Garros five years ago. "Roland Garros has terrific social and political clout now. Why, ministers who never saw a court in their lives send threats if they don't get seats. Yet when I started, nobody, but nobody, would come. I begged and begged and got my buddies to come -- Jean-Paul Belmondo (who now comes every day with this mother), Lino Ventura, Johnny Hallyday.

"What's more, some of them, notably Belmondo, don't only watch. He's learned to play and really got the bug. He has tennis courts built wherever he lives and when he produces a film, he tries to select actors that can play, to have a little fun in between takes. Belmondo also produced a film called 'La Vie a Roland Garros.'"

Another sign that Roland Garros is making it on a world level, Mills added, "is that Philippe Chatrier is president of the International Tennis Federation," (the first Frenchman in 25 years).

The stadium has its chic spots. The most popular, naturally, is the presidential box, which was jammed every day during the tournament except when neither the French president nor Mayor Jacques Chirac turned up -- because of the European elections.

But the president of the French National Assembly, Jacques Chaban-Delmas, and his wife Micheline, who truly love tennis (they met on a tennis court near Bordeaux), watched the finale together with three old-timers, Jean Borotra (who handed out the cup), Cochet, and Rene Lacoste. Unlike most men around, the latter did not wear a Lacoste shirt, but a camel's hair coat and a pale blue scarf.

Although the French are so polite they won't talk to you at a dinner party unless you've been properly introduced, tennis apparently gets to them because it has them talking to each other with something approaching recklessness. For instance, Mrs. Philippe Guibout, (nee Jacinte Giscard d'Estaing) was trading notes with a perfect stranger, Swiss banker Peter Blunsetty, just because he was sitting next to her on the steps.

Baron Empain, looking fit in a gray Shetland sweater, was telling one and all that his was high-quality tennis, and that Pecci was a great player. As for Princess Caroline of Monaco, she kept smiling radiantly at everybody.

The presidential box had caviar and champagne, plus a lot of high-toned, Legion-of-Honor and blue-striped-suited men, but the large and lively Vogue box had the fun people as well as champagne and caviar, decorated by Valentino and served by a young butler dressed as a Maxim's bellboy.

With that kind of crowd, it did not take long to see that the giant and handsome Paraguayan Pecci was wearing a diamond in his right ear. But, somebody added quickly, "Yes, but it's a fake."