The most striking thing about the draw for the $125,000 Volvo Tennis Classic, which begins today at George Washington University's Smith Center, is how little there is to choose between the top dozen or so players. They are as closely bunched as grapes, and it is too early to pick them.

The ripest candidate for the $25,000 first prize is defending champ Brian Gottfried, who reached 15 tournament finals last year and won five of them. He is seeded No. 1, but faces the sternest first-round test of any of the favorites when he plays Arthur Ashe in Tuesday evening's feature.

The seedings in Colgate Grand Prix tournaments are done according to the computer rankings of the Association of Tennis Professionals, based solely on tournament results for the past 12 months. No allowances are dmade for sentiment or past reputation.

Thus Ashe, 34, the Wimbledon champion and No. 1 player in the world in 1975, is unseeded after missing most of last season because of surgery on his left heel and a series of bothersome eye ailments.

Also unseeded are last year's runner-up, Bob Lutz, and formidable Australians John Newcombs, Tony Roche and Phil Dent.

These players, and several others in the 32-man field, are capable of beating any of the seeds without raising any eyebrows among their colleagues. Seeded behind Gottfried are Eddie Dibbs, Manuel Orantes of Spain, Paul Ramirez of Mexico, Roscoe Tanner, John McEnroe, Stan Smith and Tim Gullikson.

In the landscape of men's tennis today, Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and Guillermo Vilas, who are not playing here, are clearly the kings of the hill. Gottfried is not far from the summit, but the last grade is by far the most difficult to scale, an dhe has not yet been able to do it.

Meanwhile others - Dibbs, Orantes, Ramirez, Tanner, and a number of their contemporaries - are closer to him than he is to them. They all, in effect, inhabit a lofty plateau very close to the pinnacle of them game, and the trails up the mountain to their position is crowded with talented and eager men who would be king.

"Ten years ago, the top players hardly had to worry until the quarterfinals of a tournament. They could show up for the first couple of rounds, hung over and not have to sweat, but those days are long gone," says Charlie Pasarell.

Indeed, no one appreciates how drastically times have changed more than Pasarell, no w34. A decade ago he was ranked No. 1 in the United States. Now he is No. 178 on the computer, and was trounced in second round of qualifying for the Volvo by South African John Yuill.

Other good players did not make it to the last round of qualifying, including former U.S. Davis Cupper Erik van Dillen, Wimbledon junior champ Howard Schoenfeld and John Whitlinger, a quarterfinalist in the Volvo tournament last year.

Those who did survive the rugged qualifying yesterday were Yuill, Jim Deleaney of Potomac, Gene Mayer and Mike Cahill. Ricardo Ycaza of Ecuador, a 6-3, 6-4 loser to Yuill, also got into the main draw as a "lucky loser."

Delaney beat Australian Bill Lloyd, 6-7 7-6, 6-3, in a three-hour thriller at the Regency Racquet Club in McLean. Mayer, who hits both forehand and backhand two-fisted, ousted colorful and popular Aussie Dick Crealy, 6-4, 6-2, at Smith Center.

Delaney, a sturdy serve-adn-volleyer who was a teamate of Tanner and Mayer's older brother Sandy on the Stanford team that won the 1972 NCAA Championship, plays Mayer in the tournament opener at 10 a.m. today.

Cahill, a 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 victor over Venezuelan Davis Cupper Jorge Andrew, plays Yuill in the second match. Ironically, the qualifying winners were drawn to play each other in the first round of the main event. Ycaza, meanwhile, plays Lutz tomorrow.

Most of the players coming here after competing over the weekend in the World Cup at New Haven, Conn., in which the U.S. defeated Australia, have today off. This includes Gottfried, Tanner, Smith, Lutz, Newcombe and Roche.

Only Dent - who is actually ahead of his older and more renowned Aussie countdrymen on the computer after reaching the semifinals of the Italian and French Opens and the quarterfinals of Wimbledon last year, and just missed a seeding - is scheduled today, against Mike Fishbach. Tournament director Ray Benton was trying to juggle the schedule, however, to give Dent the travel day due him.

The only seeds scheduled to play during today's two sessions (10 a.m. and 5 p.m.) are Ramirez against Aussie Kim Warwick in the last singles of the matinee, and Dibbs, against tough Californian Jeff Borowiak in the evening feature.