FOR THE GENERAL secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, it was a provocative choice of words:

"The ball is now in the court of the U.S.A."

Yuri V. Andropov may well have used that phrase from our sporting world as a warning that he means to play his end of the superpower game with a cunning appreciation of Western prejudices and perceptions. He certainly intended more than the usual meaning.

The Kremlin is not simply lobbing balls into the American court to sustain a dialectical volley. Those balls are going to be coming in hard and fast, forehand and backhand, loaded with top spin. In sudden changes of pace, the Russians are likely to switch to tapping the ball just over the net, to catch the United States flat-footed at the base line.

Andropov's use of the ball-in-your-court idiom in a speech to the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R. on the 60th anniversary of his nation should not be misinterpreted as a sporting proposition. He was serving notice that the Soviet Union has assigned the highest priority to cracking the unity of the NATO allies to prevent deployment of new nuclear missiles in Western Europe in 1983, and to thwarting American plans to compel the Soviet Union to back down from its military buildup by the threat of an open-ended arms race.

"If you'll excuse a pun," observed retired Lt. Gen Edward L. Rowny, who heads the U.S. delegation to the strategic arms talks in Geneva, "we're in for a trial by Yuri." In a TV interview, Rowny added: "This man really understands us and he knows how to twist words. . . . You know, they preempt our words. It's like Alice in Wonderland. Words mean whatever they want them to mean."

Rowny, justifiably, lays no claim to being a profound conceptual thinker. But neither does anyone else at the top levels of the Reagan administration -- a fact that may give Andropov a significant advantage in the coming East-West showdown over nuclear arms.

Andropov has taken power with more experience in foreign affairs than any Soviet leader since Lenin, even though Andropov never has lived outside of Eastern Europe. His entire career, including his 15 years as head of the KGB, involved him deeply in international operations. Indeed, the greatest deficiency in Andropov's background, by Soviet measure, is his relatively scant experience in managing domestic affairs and the centrally planned Soviet economy.

But Andropov certainly has a clear view of the connections between the international and domestic pressures bearing down on Soviet resources. At 68, he does not have time to spend years trying to repair the gaping weaknesses in the Soviet economy -- which he acknowledges with exceptional bluntness -- before turning to the external pressures on the Soviet Union. He must juggle both tasks.

Andropov's options are clear: He must try to strike a deal for capping the arms race. Alternatively, he must pin the donkey's tail on the Reagan administration for intransigence, driving a wedge between the U.S. and its allies.

The Reagan administration has a comparable set of alternatives: To probe for an agreement limiting European-based and intercontinental-range nuclear weapons; or, if the Geneva negotiations collapse, to portray the Soviet Union as an incorrigible menace.

This will be an unusually high-stakes competition for both nations. Each will be trying to get agreements on its terms, or escape responsibility for failing. In this competition the U.S. has the advantage in resources, but the Soviet leadership has the advantage in wits. Moreover, Andropov appears to have a clear-eyed view of how he might achieve his objectives, while the Reagan administration is still deeply divided about what it is seeking and how it can get there.

Andropov will need all the manipulative skills he can summon. He must demonstrate not only his capacity as a global strategist, but his control over the levers of power inside the U.S.S.R. It usually takes years of internal maneuvering for a new Soviet leader to establish unquestioned authority. Andropov started out with a surge of dynamism, and he may be able to neutralize entrenched bureaucratic adversaries more quickly than usual. But the rivalries endemic to the Soviet system will continue to be a drag on his initiatives.

Theoretically, at least, an American president enjoys more freedom to maneuver. But halfway through its term, the Reagan administration is still beset by an internal struggle pitting traditionalists against the far right which presses the president to yield nothing to the Soviet Union.

Until now, this administration has been unable to convince Americans, let alone Russians, of its ability to sustain a coherent strategy for dealing with the Soviet Union, or to plausibly array its avowed "bargaining chips," such as the MX missile.

The Reagan administration has been learning from its own experiences. But most of them have been experiences in bandaging the wounds incurred by shooting itself in the foot. That experience is not to be minimized. But it offers inadequate assurance of the administration's capacity to cope with the magnitude of the task ahead, especially if new turbulence raises East-West tension -- for example, an eruption of violence in Poland or the Persian Gulf.

So far the Reagan administration has escaped any real crisis with the Soviet Union. That is unusual after two years in office. President Reagan has proudly asserted that the Soviet Union has not extended its physical reach into the outside world by "one inch" during his administration. Implicitly, Reagan is claiming that the Soviet Union would have launched a military foray somewhere were it not held in check by fear of some unspecified American retaliation.

But the administration requires far more than an advertising slogan to succeed in nuclear bargaining with the Soviet Union without imposing strains on allied cohesion.

The Reagan administration is now weaker in experience in East-West strategy-making than any of its predecessors since World War II. At the Cabinet level, the cupboard is almost bare in this critical area.

Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, the most voluble Cabinet member on the subject, is still a relative novice in this field, as the record of controversy surrounding his pronouncements attests. Undersecretary of Defense Fred C. Ikle is a veteran in East- West nuclear negotiations who formerly headed the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA). But Ikle usually reflects hardest-line hawkishness on negotiating with the U.S.S.R., as does the assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, Richard Perle, and most other senior Pentagon officials.

The standard counterweight inside the bureaucracy in bargaining with the Soviet Union on arms control is the State Department and ACDA. Secretary of State George P. Shultz has impressed administration colleagues and foreign leaders alike with his low- key thoughtfulness. But Shultz is admittedly still "getting up to speed" on the complexities of nuclear strategy. For the present, Shultz is heavily dependent on his few senior subordinates with expertise, notably undersecretary Lawrence S. Eagleburger, whose experience is on the political side of East-West competition; Richard R. Burt, assistant secretary- designate for European affairs and former head of the bureau of politico-military affairs, and Adm. Jonathan Howe, current director of the latter bureau.

To compound the imbalance in expertise between State and the Pentagon, the confirmation of Burt as an assistant secretary of state is ensnarled in political guerrilla warfare between the administration and the Senate New Right champions, led by the battered- but-unbowed Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).

In the Helms faction's game of holding presidential appointments hostage to the shaping of foreign policy, the future of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency itself is up for grabs. The fate of ACDA director Eugene V. Rostow, as well as the substance of the administration's arms-control strategy, hangs on the outcome of the internecine warfare in Republican ranks. The Helms faction just last week claimed another victim in the hostage game: Rostow's own deputy, Robert T. Grey Jr., was jettisoned by the White House to try to placate Helms.

In theory, internal conflicts over East-West strategy are resolved by the National Security Council, and particularly the president's national security adviser. The present occupant of that post, William P. Clark, makes no pretense of any experience in global strategy- making beyond what he has learned since the Reagan administration took office. As a highly valued, longtime Reagan associate, Clark has ready access to the president, but propinquity is not the same as sagacity.

To invoke another sports metaphor, comparing the Andropov strategy-makers to Reagan's is rather like pitting the Yankees in their prime against a pickup, sandlot team. If relative experience were all that counted, this would be no contest. Of course, the U.S. still has other advantages to overwhelm the Soviet Union -- if it can bring them to bear.

In fairness, the Reagan administration's deficiencies in foreign-affairs experience are partly the product of popular American disdain for expertise in government. The turnover in the American system, and, more seriously, the failure to retain trained professionals in the highest levels of the bureaucracy, traditionally have hobbled U.S. diplomacy.

Andropov succeeds a leader who had 18 years in office; Leonid Brezhnev's predecessor, Nikita Khrushchev, had 11 years in office; and while Khrushchev's predecessor, Georgi Malenkov, was only an interim figure, he succeeded Joseph Stalin, whose dictatorship lasted 29 years.

Enduring control at the top of a totalitarian system is hardly a model that Americans should emulate. But the price that the United States pays for loss of continuity and institutional memory must be recognized.

Andrei Gromyko is still saying "nyet," and on occasion, "da," after 26 years as Soviet foreign minister. There have been 15 U.S. secretaries of defense since 1947, and 12 secretaries of state since World War II, five of them for two years or less.

Wisdom in world affairs, of course, is not necessarily a consequence of tenure. "Some of history's greatest strategic thinkers," noted John M. Collins in a study for the Congressional Research Service, "had no formal education of any kind, much less advanced degrees in national defense. . . . Even so, pertinent tutelage could provide a huge headstart toward professional competence for the most gifted perfomers."

One essential that the Reagan administration has yet to fully grasp is that amassing hardware is not the core of nuclear strategy.

All the nuclear hardware in the world will neither win, nor deter, nuclear war. These weapons are aimed at minds far more than at physical targets. Since the beginning of the nuclear age, the manipulation of apprehensions about nuclear war has been a central element of the competition between the superpowers. Americans have forgotten that it was the United States that began the grim game of nuclear fearfulness back in the era of "brinksmanship" -- a game that looked more threatening to the Russians because Americans had actually dropped nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The contest has always proceeded according to different and inconsistent rules for the two participants. Soviet governments are not encumbered, as American administrations are, by public opinion that can press them to conform to the values and standards which they profess. Propaganda is not a dirty word in the Soviet Union. In fact, it is an honored instrument of state power.

In that same speech to the Supreme Soviet, Andropov stressed the need for sharpening the tools of Soviet propaganda: "In the sphere of international education, as in all our ideological and mass political work, we are facing big tasks. Concrete and convincing demonstrations of our achievements, earnest analysis of new problems constantly generated by life, and freshness of thought and language -- these are the elements we need to improve our propaganda, which must always be truthful and realistic, as well as interesting and easy to understand, and therefore more effective."

The "truthfulness" factor in that exhortation may be laughable to Westerners. It presupposes, obviously, "truth" to serve Soviet objectives. What Andropov was urging was more believable propaganda, more convincing propaganda, and that is no laughing matter with the resources and experience available to the Kremlin.

Here the Reagan administration is at a distinct disadvantage. Its weakness is certainly not lack of zeal by officials such as Charles Z. Wick, the president's close friend who heads the U.S. Information Agency. But if Wick suffers no shortage of drive or imagination for selling the story of American accomplishments, he seems to think that this can only be done with the tools of Hollywood or Madison Avenue. And this contributes to the administration's problem. It is not simply Americans whom Reagan has to convince. If he wants to lead the West, he must convince the West, including sophisticated -- not to say cynical -- Europeans who aren't impressed by Wick's brand of hucksterism.

The propensity in the White House to scorn advocates of various nuclear-freeze formulas as either fools or dupes of the Kremlin actually sharpens the Soviets' arguments against Reagan's Western Europe policies. By failing to accommodate Western anxieties about nuclear weapons, the U.S. could leave the field open to clever Russian gamesmen who have been playing on European anxieties for centuries.

Andropov and his colleagues will not similarly squander their resources in the competition for men's minds. They will be playing every stroke with all the skill they can muster. And the shots coming across the net now are merely part of the warm-up. The zingers are yet to come.