A setback in his recuperation from foot surgery in February has forced Arthur Ashe to withdraw from singles in the $125,000 Washington Star International tennis championships, which began yesterday at Washington Tennis Stadium.

Swelling and pain in his left foot caused Ashe to abandon a practice session with fellow pros Sherwood Stewart and Fred McNair IV at Columbia Country Club yesterday. A few hours later he informed tournament officials that he had to pull out of the singles.

Runner-up in 1969 and 1970, the first two years the Star tournament was held, and champion here in 1973, Ashe was seeded No. 8 this year. His place in the draw will be taken by Butch Seewagen of New York, the Columbia University coach, who has the highest computer ranking of the final-round losers in the 64-man qualifying competition held over the weekend.

Ashe, a longtime supporter of the Washington Area Tennis Patrons Foundation, beneficiary of the tournament, is the only player who had competed in all eight previous Star tournaments. He will attempt to play doubles with Stan Smith, with whom he has teamed well in occasional outings. They won the U.S. Indoor Open championship in 1970.

Ashe, who celebrated his 34th birthday last week, has not played competitively since early since early January. He underwent surgery in New York in February for a bone spur and calcium deposits in the left heel, a longstanding problem that had caused an increasing irritation and inflammation of the achilles, tendon.

He had hoped to resume tournament play in May or June, but a series of eye ailments - first conjunctivitis and then-iritis, an infection of the right iris - kept him out of several tournaments, including the Wimbledon championships.

"Twelve days ago I started practicing again and also went on a five-day regimen of medication with Butazolidin," said Ashe, who won Wimbledon and earned the No. 1 world ranking in 1975. "I went to Miami and practiced for five days with Brian Gottfried and had only a minimal amount of pain.

"But I went off Butazolidin last Tuesday, and on Friday the pain started to get worse. The heel hurt more and more each day until I finally had to quit."

Ashe consulted with his three doctors in New York yesterday by phone, and will undergo a blood test in Washington today. If his white blood cell count is normal, unaffected by the earlier doses of Butazolidin, he will resume taking the anti-inflammatory drug.

"I talked with Dr. John Marshall of the Sports Medicine Institute in New York, who has supervised my rehabilitation, and he said, 'You have to pay attention to your body's signals," Ashe said, "If it hurts too much, I just have to lay off and wait awhile longer.

"It's frustrating in the sense that I was kind of lulled into a false sense of security by the Butazolidin. Last week, practicing and training in the hot weather, I felt good, but when the pills stopped, the pain came backf. That is strong stuff, and you can't take it indefinitely.

"But other guys who have had operations told me that they'd be surprised if I could play in Washington. It has been five months and eight days since my operation, and most of them told me it takes between six and eight months. Maybe I was fooling myself in thinking I could come back in five months."

Ashe's day was soothed by what he called "at least one bit of good news." He was informed by ABC-TV that the half-hour documentary on sport in South Africa that he filmed several months ago will be aired this Saturday on the network's "Wide World of Sports" show.

Meanwhile, the Star tournament started slowly, with two brief but heavy downpours causing interruptions in the matinee program.

Dick Crealy, the 16th and last seed in the 64-man draw, opened the stadium program with a decisive 6-1, 6-4 victory over South African Deon Joubert.

Crealy, 32, an engaging 6-foot-4 Australian who can play excellent tennis when he gets his gangly arms and legs and sometimes wandering mind all going in the same direction, was not bothered by the muggy heat that was meaeured at 96 degrees at 1 p.m.

"It wasn't nearly as bad as the smog in Cincinnati last week," said Crealy, who defaulted in the third round of the Western Championships to Mark Cox. "That was the first time in my life that I couldn't breathe.It was scary. You felt like you needed an oxygen mask because you couldn't get any out of the air. The pollution was just unbelievable."

Ricardo Cano, whose upset victory over Dick Stockton spurred Argentina's 3-2 triumph over the United States in the Davis Cup American Zone final at Buenos Aires in April, ousted Bernie Mitton, 7-6, 6-2.

Mitton served for the first set, which was interrupted by the first of the afternoon's showers, at 6-5, but was broken at 30. Cano passed him with a backhand cross-court off a forehand volley after Mitton had put himself at break point with an unforced backhand error, one of numerous sloppy points he played.

Cano, whose variety of soft balls, short angles, and deep floaters kept Mitton from establishing the rhythm of his aggressive game, won the tie breaker, 9 points to 7, after Mitton had saved four set points from 3-6.

Mitton, 25, is a slasher, and at times he looked indifferent or even bored as Can forced him to generate all the pace. At the end his blue shirt was soaked through with perspiration, his wild brown hair and beard were matted, and his patience shot.

Van Winitsky, 18, a lefthander who is ranked only No. 4 among U.S. juniors but won the Wimbledon junior title two weeks ago, displayed good touch, persistance, and a tendency to stick out his tongue on every serve in dispatching Californian Chico Hagey, a former Stanford University All-America, 6-2, 6-2.

Victor Amaya 23, the plodding 6-foot-5 lefthander who was an All-America at the University of Michigan, won the first five games of a 6-3, 6-4 victory over Howard Schoenfeld, 19, the 1975 U.S. Junior champion.

Colombian Davis Cupper Ivan Molina, who has been practicing for a week in Washington after having treatment in Spain for shoulder and knife ailments, defeated George Hardie, another, 6-3, 6-4.

Molins is an experienced clay courter who has been ranked No. 1 in his homeland since 1968 and has scatered good wins over the likes of Rod Laver and Manuel Orantes, but he is still bothered by tendinitis in his left shoulder and is seeing a doctor here.