Stan Smith and Arthur Ashe. Wimbledon champions. Davis Cup heroes.

Rising above the muck of contemporary professional sports to play their game the way it was supposed to be played--with grace, pride and dignity.

Captains America.

But hold on a minute. These two guys once "arranged" a match. That's the way Ashe describes it in Michael Mewshaw's new book, "Short Circuit."

Split the prize money by prior agreement, says Smith, who also told the author, "You won't get players playing winner-take-all events. They want to know they're going to get something."

Stan. Arthur. Say it ain't so.

They can't, because like many of their colleagues on the tour, they've put themselves on the record on rampant corruption in pro tennis.

Mewshaw, a novelist by trade, ran away for six months in 1982 with the transcontinental circus that tennis has become. "Burned out," he says, after successive works on crime and famine, he wanted a break and intended to publish "a lighthearted, upbeat George Plimptonish sort of book" on his favorite sport.

A self-described "average club player," he admits in an introduction, "Perhaps I could persuade a few players to hit with me."

Two fantasies were dashed in what turned out to be a "sickening" vacation.

First, no one from John McEnroe on down wanted to trade forehands with Mewshaw.

Second, and more important, he found that pro tennis is dominated not by the Stan Smiths and Arthur Ashes of our imaginations but by shabbier players on the take, promoters eager to give and officials "with their heads stuck in the sand."

Lean and prematurely white-haired at 40, Mewshaw wears a preppy blue blazer and tinted aviator glasses. He looks more like an ex-pro or a coach than a Sunday hacker.

He admits that he has an unusual love for tennis, feeling elevated each time he steps between the white lines "to that state of grace which men experience in the face of any action, athletic or artistic, that is infused with genius."

Embarking on his dream tour, he says he was vaguely aware of players accepting "appearance money" merely for showing up at tournaments, but "it hadn't really registered."

"The shock on my part was that people responsible for policing the sport looked the other way," he explains over a hotel breakfast of coffee and a blueberry muffin.

Looked the other way, for example, from the systematic payment of top players to lure their fans, sponsors and television coverage to events that might otherwise sink into red ink.

The Men's International Professional Tennis Council last month slapped fifth-ranked Guillermo Vilas with a year's suspension for accepting a $100,000 retainer in just such an arrangement. (He is playing pending an appeal.) Mewshaw has been widely credited for stirring up the concern that prompted the punishment.

But he's not satisfied.

"It's a case where the guy was caught with the pistol in his hand and the dead body at his feet," he says. And it's the only time the council has ever acted on a strictly forbidden form of corruption that has been written about sporadically for years.

Mewshaw points out that Harold Solomon, president of the Association of Tennis Professionals, has stated publicly that 90 percent of the more than 100 annual major tournaments pay appearance guarantees.

Some players have supported Vilas, righteously decrying criticism of what they and many promoters see as a simple business relationship. John McEnroe Sr., father and manager of the temperamental 1983 Wimbledon champion, has insisted, says Mewshaw, that "if a guy is rendering value for value, it should not be a violation of anything."

McEnroe Sr. argues that if young John graces a tournament with his drop shots and obscenities, the contest will fly. Players vying to be No. 1 in the world wouldn't take it easy just because they got some money up front, would they?

Probably not, but Mewshaw contends that appearance fees will infect a tournament just as surely as a feisty culture of athlete's foot in the locker room.

"If you pay someone $100,000 in any form of contract," says Mewshaw, "you have a very large investment in that player, and you are going to do everything possible to improve his chances of winning and making it to the later rounds of the tournament."

This is where the real funny business begins.

Start with the Pro Council's Code of Conduct. "There's never been a top-ranking player defaulted for misbehavior in open tennis," says Mewshaw.

He explains that tournament directors who have rented an ace for a week don't want their man to get the hook for giving the umpire the finger.

Since each director hires his own court officials in tennis, umpires can be instructed to bend the rules and keep stars in--no matter what, says Mewshaw. That goes for unsportsmanlike conduct and, in a pinch, close calls.

Premeditated cheating?

Believe it.

Mewshaw heard it from lesser players. They have a reason to beef. But he also heard it from former champs, like Ashe. And he heard it from chagrined umpires who cross their fingers, close their eyes and overrule correct calls.

"I've had people say they were directly instructed to do this," he says. These are umpires who insisted on anonymity so they could keep their jobs and the numerous perks promoters provide to loyal employes.

"What if George Steinbrenner were hiring his own umpires in baseball?" asks Mewshaw. "What if after hiring that umpire, it was revealed that he was laying lavish entertainment on that umpire, or giving him substantial gifts, or arranging for that umpire to buy a luxury car at great terms? That's the way it is in tennis."

Splitting prize money and prearranging scores to fit television schedules are two more of the practices Mewshaw says are common on the tour and dominant in "winner-take-all" exhibitions.

Asked by a European magazine if the super-hyped challenge matches are fixed, France's No. 1, Yannick Noah, said, "In general, the players reach an agreement to play three sets: one apiece and then an honest third."

"This is all amateur night in Dixie--it's whatever these guys want to do," says Mewshaw, who points out that instead of intervening, the Keystone Kops officials who run crooked tournaments simply try to outbid exhibition sponsors with guarantees for the hot players.

"The problem is that the public isn't told about these matches," says Mewshaw. The fixed exhibitions "are frequently reported in the papers as if they're significant events. People buy expensive tickets. They're promoted on television. This is fraud."

So is "tanking," the widespread tactic of throwing unimportant matches, usually in low-paying doubles tournaments, when bigger paydays are just at the other end of an airplane flight. Mewshaw quotes Vijay Amritraj of India apparently planning a swan dive with his doubles partner over drinks with journalists:

" 'We'll let them serve,' Vijay said. 'We'll start off letting them ace us every time.' "

Amritraj later said he had been kidding, says Mewshaw. He and his American partner then went out and lost the match to a pair of feeble opponents.

It all sounds like professional wrestling. Or the Harlem Globetrotters in tennis whites.

"I don't care if they tank," one official told Mewshaw, "as long as they put on a good show."

Like some of the other improprieties Mewshaw describes, throwing matches has been reported by tennis journalists. He says, for example, that several newspapers described Ivan Lendl's apparent surrender to Connors in the 1981 Grand Prix championship.

But Mewshaw argues that the tennis press scrutinizes the seamy side of the game too infrequently and too delicately.

"They may criticize an event for having a weak field or for being poorly organized," he writes. "But they seldom, if ever, put directors or players on the spot by writing about appearance money, tanking, drugs, corrupt umpires, prize-money splitting, set-splitting, betting, or other subjects which, judging by my experience, would be very difficult for reporters not to know about."

Some veterans in the field disagree.

"We've written about these things, plain and simple," says Alexander McNab, managing editor of Tennis magazine.

"Grossly inaccurate," says Neil Amdur of The New York Times, a 20-year veteran on the tour. "I would take exception to his saying tennis journalists have ignored all of the elements he found."

Mewshaw says that he doesn't "want to impose my sense of ethics on" other journalists, "but I would hope that the average guy would say, 'This is unacceptable. I'm going public in a big way with this.' "

He calls for nothing less than industry-wide investigations by the Justice Department and the Federal Trade and Communications commissions.

"This involves millions of dollars. It involves fraud and deceptive practices. If we had businessmen involved with that sort of conflict of interest, you can be sure that the Justice Department would look into it."

The difference between the regular tennis correspondents and this novelist-turned-crusader may be what Mewshaw describes in "Short Circuit" as his search for "a less complex world than the one I inhabited," one that "involved little compromise, no ambiguity, no troubling shades of gray, just stark yet reassuring black and white. The ball was in or it was out."

It wasn't like that in the pre-1968 era of "shamateurism," when players took all of their money under the table, and it isn't like that today.

"Tennis was born in dishonesty," columnist and broadcaster Bud Collins told Mewshaw in an interview, "and it has never grown out of it."

Michael Mewshaw discovered his delusions the hard way and doesn't want the rest of us to be fooled anymore.

"I still watch," he says, "but with a sense of loss."

An excerpt from "Short Circuit" is scheduled to appear in the Sports section of The Post on Sunday.