Are the first gray hairs sneaking in among the brown, or is it the way the light hits Billie Jean King's head?

If there are any dastardly gray strands, BJK is liable to yank them out by the roots.

Few athletes have raged as courageously against the loss of athletic gifts as King, the defiant Old Lady of women's tennis.

At 34 she has come back from three major knee operations. And nothing could be worse than knee surgery for a played who constantly strains those hinges to the limit, scuttling about the court resembling a furious, adrenalin-high sand crab.

But each year King's battle against calories and loss of motivation and young hot shots and the tug of time on old muscles becomes harder.

She began the new year losing in the first round of the first tournament to an almost unknown 19-year-old high school student.

"There are no easy matches for me anymore," said King after Regina Marshikova had stormed past her, 1-6, 6-3, 6-3, in the Virginia Slims of Washington.

King's defeat, in which she double faulted match point to a Czech high school senior, seemed like the stuff of tear-jerking athletic melodrama.

It was and it wasn't. King felt the ambigulty more strongly than anyone.

plenty of BJK fans left Smith Center after midnight with a desire to kick a hubcap or perhaps hold back a tear.

King's defeat had been most heart wrenching and graphic.All who saw it went away with the unsettling image of a champion's spirit trapped in an untrustworthy body.

The first set was all happiness as King charmed the crowd with her high jinks and her demands that she hit every shot perfectly.

King, in short, was playing the trooper, giving the folks a classy late show.

Then the whole thing blew up: King lost her forehand; King lost her temper. King even lost her desire, muttering uncharacteristically. "I don't need this. Too tough. Too tough." And King lost a set.

The crowd loved it. They wanted to see King reach down for those lengendary resources of gumption and just-plain-ornery hatred of losing anytime, anywhere.

King reached and came up as empty as any aged and injured champion ever dreamed in her worst nightmare.

Each time King and Marsikova changed sides, King did her stretching exercises: a housewife watching Jack LaLanne.And with each stretch King could see those knee scars - the right one is only 13 months old and livid purple.

"use that old experience." pleaded a fan to King.

"I've got 23 years of it." King muttered.

The end was dry and bitter, like chewing chalk. King, blasting volleys and inventing little desperate touch shots, broke Marsikova for 5-3 in the third.She seemed ready to pull even Marsikovo admitted afterward. "The people were yelling in my ear for her to win. I had just twisted my ankle. And I knew I couldn't beat her at her best. I just said to myself, "Regina, hold on."

But that was not necessary. King gave away the final game - on her serve - at love.

Those close to the women's tour spent yesterday in mourning, recreating the sad match.

"Billie Jean has always had to finest, guttiest second serve in women's tennis, plus a fine backhand and overhead. Her forehand. . . who knows? But the thing that has always set her apart was her mental capacity for great courage on vital points," said Don Candy, former coach of the WTT Baltimore Banners.

"She has always been able to reproduce the most amazingly difficult athletic shots when the bullets were flying."

That combination of icy courage and raw athletic capability on clutch points made King a jewel in the crown of sports. Now the second half of the blend may be deteriorating.

"I still wouldn't bet a dime against Billie Jean at Wimbledon this year when the bullets are flying again and the rest of 'em have ducked under tables and Billie Jean is saying. "Hey, deal me into this game," added Candy.

It is a near certainty that King, fifth in the world last year in money winnings ($156.149) despite missing the Slims tour recovering from surgery, will not lose her form overnight.

In matches last year against othe top 10 players, except Chris Evert, King's record was a spectacular 18-1. The Old Lady can still beat most of the women in her sleep, and she insisted after her defeat here that, "I'm running very well and that's the most important thing."

The most unexpected aspect of King's crash was her almost instant equarimity.

"What does this mean?" she grinned. "Well, the rest of the week (when she will play only doubles) will be kinda dull. I don't like to pay back-gammon or boggle."

King's conception of her place in tennis has changed redically in the last two years. When she won Wimbledon in 1975 and then retired, she did so as a legend. She completed the athlete's dream of leaving her sport at her peak.

When she came out of retirement after Forest Iiilis in '76, the unstated but obvious reason was the Evert was making women's tournaments a bore with her excellence. The circuit desperately needed the Old Lady.

King has stuck by that inevitably humbling decision. The career victory edge she once held over Evert has now turned to a rather sour 7-12 deficit. Posterity will probably sell King a bit short because of her defeats in the past two years, forgetting how King taught Evert lessons when both fought for the top spot on even terms.

But King now swallows that.

Surgery in November, 1976, was her unequivocal statement that she would play singles as long as she felt like it, and all that living-legend, and I-won't-play-unless-I'm No. 1 stuff could go to blazes.

"I'm very happy to be playing tennis again, said King yesterday. "Just to be running and enjoying the challenge is so important to me."

"I'm playing now because I enjoy playing tennis," she said almost defiantly, as though her greatest pleasure in life was not going to be taken from her by a little defeat.

"I've made some changes in my game (because of her knees), and that's another challenge."

Then came the King Sunday punch. "I remember when there was no women's pro tour, when the Wimbledon final didn't get as much publicity as our first-round matches will this week. And that was just 10 years ago.

"It's a downright luxury to play tennis in times like these," beamed King. "We've waited years to have depth and balance in our fields, and I'm certainly not going to complain now because the good, young players beat me once in a while."