Chris Evert was indisputably the No. 1 woman in tennis when she began a four-month vacation from tournaments. Last December, while she was away from the office, Martina Navratilova started playing boss - winning seven consecutive championships and 37 straight matches to dominate the Virginia Slims winter circuit.

Today, the world will find out who is really in charge of the shop. Evert and Navratilova, the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds, will meet for a $32,000 first prize and something far more precious: the women's singles title at Wimbledon.

Evert, 24, has been here before. She was runner-up to Billie Jean King in 1973, champion in 1974 and 1976. Obviously, she likes the even-numbered years.

Navratilova, 21, the expatriate Czech left-hander now a Dallas resident, is a finalist for the first time.

"I think that might be a bit of a disadvantage," suggested Evert, who knows how nerve-jarring Centre Court at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club can be when the Duke and Duchess of Kent are in the royal box waiting to present the champion's plate.

Evert leads their career rivalry, 20-5, but they have met only once this year. That was in the final at Eastbourne two-weeks ago, in a grasscourt tunecup for Wimbledon.

It was a magnificent match, both players controlling the ball beautifully in a difficult wind. Navratilova came back from 1-4 in the third set and saved a match point in beating Evert, which might have been a significant psychological breakthrough.

Navratilova won the biggest title of her career to date, the Virginia Slims Championship at Oakland in April, by coming from behind against Evonne Goolagong, whom she defeated in the semifinals here. That triumph was an important confidence booster, reinforcing her newfound belief in herself and her maturity on court.

Evert has won two tournaments and 25 of 27 matches since her return in March. Navratilova has won nine tournaments and 58 of 61 matches this year.

The grass surface favors Navratilova's aggressive serve-and-volley game, probably the most powerful in women's tennis. But the court is spongy and playing slower than usual after three weeks of drizzly, cold weather, and that should help Evert's backcourt attack.

Evert's service returns and passing shots were superb in her 8-6, 6-2 semifinal victory over defending champion Virginia Wade. She played much better in that match thaa in her three-set quaterfinal win over King, and feels that she is peaking at the right time.

"Even though I've had two really close matches, I still haven't reached top form. I'm striving towards that. I hope it will happen in the finals," said Evert, who is relaxed and happy, certain that her vacation was the best tonic for refreshing her zest for the game.

"I haven't really been nervous this tournament. In the past I've always been uptight at Wimbledon, but I don't put that added pressure on myself anymore," she said. "I go out and try my hardest, but I don't say, 'If you don't win this, it's the end of the world.' I did before. I used to put a lot of pressure on myself to win."

Navratilova - who has done a great deal of growing up since she defected in September 1975, much of it in the past 12 months - wants this title so badly that she is putting the old Evert-style pressure on herself.

She knows that her parents and younger sister, whom she has not seen since she defected, will drive the 90 miles from their home in Revnice, outside Prague, to the German border so that they can watch the final on German television.

Navratilova's name has hardly been mentioned in the Czechoslovakian press since she became a non-person in the eyes of the government, but she says her native people will know she is in the final from reports on the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.

Her quarterfinal victory over Marise Kruger received only one line in the small type of the "Results" section in Czech newspapers, it has been reported. Presumably her semifinal victory got the same treatment, but she knows that a triumph today would be difficult news to ignore.

"I wonder," Navratilova mused, "if they would say, 'Chris Evert lost to somebody in the finals of Wimbledon.'"

In addition to a contrast in playing styles, the match offers a clash of radically different temperatments. Evert is impassive, emotionless, renowned as the "Ice Maiden." Navratilova is emotional and demonstrative, though much calmer and more self-controlled than she used to be.

Evert will try not to look at the longing in Navratilova's eyes. She doesn't want to see how much this title would mean to her.

"I don't want to play off my opponent's emotions. I would rather be just stable and secure with my game," Evert said.

"If I'm playing well, I know that I can beat anyone. As soon as I start looking . . . Well, it's a distraction to see emotion on a person's face, especially if she's a friend.

"Martina is my friend. We've been through a lot together. She was my doubles partner. We were very close friends. No, I just have to separate myself from that."

That is how it is when the two best players in women's tennis meet on Centre Court at Wimbledon to decide, at least for now, who is the boss.