When tournament director Ray Benton made the draw for the $125,000 Volvo Tennis Classic, to be played this week at George Washington University's Smith Center, he struck in his thumb and pulled out a first-round plum: defending champion and top seed Brian Gottfried vs. comebacking Arthur Ashe.

There will be a full slate of matches tomorrow, starting at 10 a.m., but Tuesday evening's Gottfried-Ashe encounter is by far the most inviting of the opening round.

Gottfried - who played superbly in this tournament last year and routed Bob Lutz in the final, 6-1, 6-2 - is the highest-ranked player in the 32-man field. He is No. 4 in the computerized rankings of the Association of Tennis Proffesionals, behind only the ruling triumvirate of Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and Guillermo Vilas, none of whom are entered here.

As he no longer merits a seeding because he has tumbled far down on the computer printout after missing most of last season. He was sidelined five months after surgery on his left heel, and his return was delayed by recurring eye problems and unexpected post-operative tenderness in his foot.

But he beat Ilie Nastasc in his first match this year, at Richmond last month, and reached the semifinals of a Grand Prix event in Denver, so he hopes he is on his way back.

Ashe, 34, defaulted in singles from the U.S. Indoors in Memphis the week before last with a flare-up of his eye problems - "iritis," an infection and inflammation of the iris - but says it is no longer bothering him.

"Physically, I've got no problems," he said Friday. "My left foot will never be as good as the right, but I can play. As far as I'm concerned, it's not a problem."

He was not exactly elated with his draw here, but took it philosophically.

"I haven't played Gottfried in a tournament in ages, but I hung around Memphis after my eye cleared up and practiced with him for 4 1/2 hours," he said "I won, too . . . but of of course, that doesn't mean anything."

Gottfried, 26, scored the first big victory of his pro career over Ashe in 1973, clobbering him, 6-1, 6-3, for the $30,000 first prize in the Alan King Classic at Las Vegas. They didn't meet last year, and Gottfried had a 2-1 edge in 1976.

Seeded behind Gottfried in the scramble for the $25,000 first prize are Eddie Dibbs, Manuel Orantes, Raul Ramirez, Roscoe Turner, amateur John McEnroe, Stan Smith and Tim Gullikson, runner-up to Connors at Memphis.

There also are a number of dangerous unseeded players lurking in the draw, including Lutz and Australians John Newcombe, Tony Roche and Phil Dent.

Dibbs faces a tough first-rounder on the medium-pace synthetic carpet at Smith Center against Californian Jeff Borowiak, who beat Borg in the second round here last year.

Orantes opens against one-time junior terror Billy Martin, now 21; Ramirez against talented but volatile Aussie Kim Warwick, and Tanner against promising young Chris Lewis of New Zealand, not to be confused with promising young Chris Lewis of UCLA who played in the Washington Star International last summer.

Tanner - who along with Gottfried, Smith and Dick Stockton has been working intensively with Coach Dennis Ralston - has played well so far this year. He was played well so far this year. He was runner-up to Connors in the U.S. Pro Indoor at Philadelphia, after beating Borg, and topped Orantes and Ramirez to win the strong American Airlines Tennis Games at Palm Springs, Calif., last month.

McEnroe, 19, the Stamford freshman who last summer became the youngest semifinalist in 100 years of Wimbledon, drew as his first opponent Tom Gullikson, the left-hander of the 25-year-old identical twins from Onalaska, Wis. Brother Tim opens against another improving lefty, splendidly bearded Terry Moor of Monroe, LA.

And beware those unseeded Aussies around the Ides of March.

If Newcombe, trying to return to top competitive shape at 34, gets up Yugoslav Zeljko Franulovic, he will likely play Tunner in the second round.

If Roche downs fellow southpaw Nick Saviano, he'll play the Tim gullikson-Moor winner.

And if Dent prevails over Mike Fishbach - whose double-strung "spaghetti" racked, which caused such a stir at Forest Hills last fall, is presidently barred from tournament play - he will provide a stern test for the Gottfried-Ashe survivor.

After the first-round plum, that could be a peach.

One final-round qualifying match is scheduled at Smith Center today at noon, followed by "celebrity matches" starting at 1:30 p.m. Three other qualifying matches are slated for Regency Racquet Club in McLean.

Admission today is free of charge.

In the second match yesterday, Stan Smith and Bob Lutz played Australians John Alexander and Phil Dent in doubles.

Gottfried only lost his serve once in dispensing with comeback-minded Newcombe. Gottfried broke Newcombe at 1-1 in the first set and fended off the Australian to win, 6-4.

In the second set, Gottfried broke Newscombe in the first game and appeared headed for an identical win. However, Newcombe broke back in the sixth game behind two excellent passing shots and went ahead, 4-3, on his serve. Gottfried, came back to take the last three games for the win.

Newcombe, who lost in Jimmy Connors by a similar score Friday night, could not get his game into a steady groove as he followed difficult cross-court winners with easy volley miscues.

Gottfried opened the tourney Thursday night with a 7-5, 6-4 win over Alexander.