Arthur Ashe said yesterday he thinks the United States should play South Africa in the Davis Cup next month. Instead of trying to cancel the matches, Ashe believes, influential civil rights groups in the U.S. should "use their muscle to change the rules" so that South Africa is expelled from international tennis competition.

As the only world-class black tennis player and a longtime anti-apartheid activist with a thorough knowledge of South Africa and its racist policies, Ashe said he is "intimately involved" in this issue. He applauded calls for massive demonstrations at the U.S-South Africa matches, scheduled March 17-19 at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He added, however, that demonstrator should peacefully protest South African racism without attempting to distrupt the contest.

The Coalition for Human Rights in South Africa - an ad hoc group of some 20 organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Urban League, and the American Committee on Africa - Tuesday called for "a major national campaign to force the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) to withdraw its invitation to the South African team."

The coalition was formed last fall by Franklin H. Williams, former U.S. ambassador to Ghana, in response to a new wave of repression within South Africa. I seeks to pressure President Carter, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, Tennessee senators and congressmen, the USTA, the mayor of Nashville, and the Vanderbilt administration to force cancellation of the match.

Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the NAACP, pledged that if those efforts failed, he would mobilize "the biggest demonstration this country has seen since the 1960s" in Nashville.

Ashe said he welcomes the involvement of the civil rights groups in the anti-South Africa movement. But he thinks they have misconceptions about how the Davis Cup competition operates and what the USTA's policy toward South Africa has been.

"Getting the U.S. to pull out of this match is definitely not the best way to resolve the issue of South Africa's participation," Ashe said. "That seems to be the best way on the surface, but it's not. It would be a Pyrrhic victory for them (the coalition) if they did it.

Ashe said he would try to meet next week with Williams, Hooks and other civil rights leaders. He wasnt to correct misinformation they have been given about the historic development of the problem and to "put them on speaking terms" with USTA President W.E. (Slew) Hester.

"My role, since I know more about South Africa and the Davis Cup than most of the other parties do, is to straigthen out discrepancies in the facts, explain to the civil rights groups the best way of achieving their desired objectives, and getting them together with the USTA so they can negotiate something with Slew Hester," Ashe said.

Ashe supports Hester's position that the U.S. should play the match because, having entered the competition, it is bound by Davis Cup rules. Under a rule sponsored by the USTA dna dopted last year by the Davis Cup Nations, the body which governs the competition, any country defaulting for political reasons faces an automatic two-year suspension.

"The root of the problem cannot be solved by just stopping this one match," Ashe said. "In fact, if the U.S. were to refuse to play South Africa next month and were subsequently suspended, as per the rules, it would remove from the scene the most powerful voice for resolving the entire issue. The South African issue cannot be resolved without input from the USTA.

"The U.S. should adhere to the rules right now. I will try to explain that to Franklin Williams, Ben Hooks and the others, and get them to lend their muscle to the USTA so that the Davis Cup rules are changed and any countries deemed undesirable will not be allowed to play."

Ashe said he was overjoyed, however, that major civil rights groups have taken up the anti-South African cause. Only in that way will the consciousness of the mass of black Americans be raised, Ashe said.