A near-capacity crowd of 13,000 waited through a long, muggy afternoon to see Arthur Ashe, as popular abroad as he is in the United States, play defending champion Guillermo Vilas yesterday in the fourth round of the French Open tennis championships.

By the time the day's principal players had walked on to the center court at Stade Roland Carros just before 7 p.m. a dreary overcast had burned off. But unfortunately, the match everyone had eagerly anticipated did not turn out to be worth waiting for.

Vilas much sharper than in the previous two rounds, frustrated Ashe with his topspin service returns and passing shots and won easily, 6-2, 6-2, 6-2, in an hour and 34 minutes.

The Argentinian left-hander thus advanced to a quarterfinal meeting with Hans Gildemeister, the 22-year-old Chilean who beat him for the first time in March, in the pivotal match of Chile's victory over Argentina in the Davis Cup.

Gildemeister who elminated Harold Solomon on Saturday, blew a two-set lead, and then came back in the fifth set to oust 15th-seeded John Alexander of Australia, 7-5, 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 6-3.

Fifth-seeded Manuel Orantes of Spain, runner-up to Bjorn Borg here in 1974, elminated Tim Gullikson, 6-3, 7-6, 7-6, and 10th-seeded Dick Stockton put out qualifier Rofl Gehring of West Germany, conqueror of Brian Cottfried on Saturday, 7-5, 6-1, 6-3.

Ashe, 34, has never had much success on Slow, red European clay. He said when he arrived in Paris for the world's premier clay, court test that he didn't really expect to last until the second week, but considered the tournament "an itellectual challenge."

He had the right ideas for playing Vilas, but simply was unable to execute his tactical plan. He repeatedly moved the quick, powerful 25-year-old around the court, creating openings for a point-ending thrust, then couldn't make the shot.

"I don't move quite well enough on this stuff." Ashe said "and my foot-work isn't quite quick enough at the net, to beat a good clay, courter. If I were a bit quicker and 10 years younger, I'd handle him with ease.

Then he grinned and added, "Of course, he'd be 10 years younger, too."

Ashe kept the bail in play, changed pace and spin frequently, lobbed and drop-shotted, but he missed too many volleys and was overanxious on his forcing shots.

"I think I played better than the score indicates, but I couldn't put the bloody ball away," Ashe said. "Just like against Solomon at Rome (in the third round of the Italian Open). I couldn't finish off the points."

Vilas, who came back from 1.4-down in the final set against Billy Martin, then beat 18-year-old Frenchman Yannick Noah in four sets in the third round, admitted he was right before the match.

"I was very nervous. Arthur is a good player, and I didn't want to give him any chances," said Vilas, who had an inconsistent spring after his outstanding second half of 1977 when he won 50 matches in a row and the U.S. Open between July and October. He started to return to form last month, winning tournaments in Hamburg and Munich.

Gildemeister, the unorthodox former University of Southern California player who hits two-fisted from both sides, blasted some wonderful passing shots in the first two sets against the sturdy, ever-attacking Alexander.

He seemed on his way to an easy victory, but Alexander dug in and played more patiently, rallying down the center of the court to take away the angles that Gildemeister was exploiting so well, coming in on short balls to put away piercing volleys.

"I gave everything I had in the fourth set and he just outplayed me, and when he broke me in the third game of the fifth I thought it was all over for me," said Gildemeister, who, as the match went into its fourth hour, was limping noticeably from painful tendonitis in his left knee.

Gullikson, playing his first tournament on clay this year, had a chance to get into his match against one of the most graceful clay-court maestros when he broke Orantes for a 4-3 lead in the second set. But the left-handed spaniard with the elegant, classical strokes broke straight back, then won the set in a tie breaker.

The third set had a similar pattern, Gullikson breaking for a 3-1 lead, Orantes coming right back and eventually winning in another tie breaker.

"I thought he was getting tired, and if I had won the third I might have had a good chance," Gullikson said.

"But I missed an awful lot of forehand approaches, and there was a lot of pressure on me to get my first serve in, because I didn't want to be sitting back on the baseline trading ground strokes with him. My only chance was to get in to the net."

Stockton served well against Gehring and became increasingly confident after nearly blowing the first set. He led, 5-2, 5-3, and 30-0 on his own serve, and had a set point at 5-4, 30-40 on Gehring's serve.

"I almost let it slip away, but I played much better after the first set," said Stockton, 26, who is playing here for only the second time. "He seemed to get really tired. He had won three five-setters to get this far."

Gehring, only No. 196 in the computerized world rankings, hit some of the punishing passing shots off both wings that victimized Gottfried, but Stockton was more content to wait out his opportunities to get to the net.

"Brian didn'te net.

"Brian didn't have much success attacking his second serve and going nice, smooth serve - he kicks it pretty high - so I was content just to hang back and hit deep forehands, trying to get some pace on the ball and get into the point that way."