The $125,000 Volvo tennis tournament begins today at George Washington University's Smith Center. Officially, it is the Volvo Classic. Unfortunately, "classic" is one of the most overworked and undernourished words in the sports vocabulary -- as it is in this case.

Oh, the field is respectable enough. Top-seeded Eddie Dibbs is ranked No. 7 in the world, according to the computer of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP). Defending champion Brian Gottfried is No. 8.

Arthur Ashe is No. 9 -- a legitimate superstar who, at age 35, has recovered from heel surgery to come closer to his once world-beating form than most experts thought possible.

Roscoe Tanner (No. 10), of the electrifying left-handed serve, can be counted on to have some aces up his sleeve. Raul Ramirez (No. 12), runnerup to Gottfried here last year, is a world-class player.

There will be good matches, perhaps even some gems. One should be Ashe vs. Bob Lutz, inconsistent these days but still capable of some wonderful attacking tennis. That is a great first-round pairing anytime, anywhere.

Tennis aficionados -- who realize how thin, and how largely cerebral, is the line that separates the pro game's elite from its rank-and-file -- know this. They will be at Smith Center, and they will be satisfied.

But the man in the street, the sports fan with a casual interest in tennis, probably will pass on this "classic."

He wants to know, not surprisingly, where are Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors and Guillermo Vilas? Where is the celebrated playboy, Vitas Gerulaitis; where is the young hotshot, John McEnroe?If this is majorleague tennis, why ain't any of the top five players in the world here?

Well, let's see. Borg and McEnroe are representing their countries next weekend in Davis Cup zone matches. Vilas is playing exhibitions somewhere. Connors is relaxing with his wife, the former Playmate of the Year. And Gerulatis -- well, the Disco Kid boogies to the vibes of a different drummer.

At any rate, they're not here. Neither, alas, is native son Harold Solomon (now No. 6 in the computer rankings), who has a broken foot.

Their absence does not warrant public mourning, but it somewhat diminishes interest in the Volvo tournament, because pro tennis -- like the rest of the entertainment industry -- operates on a star system.

Ray Benton -- attorney, entrepreneur, player representative, promoter, Volvo tournament director -- does not like to acknowledge this. He would like everyone to be delighted with understudies and good, solid, professional supporting actors.

"People will come because we put on a good event. It's marketed and presented well, and people will enjoy the entertainment they see.

"They'll go away saying, 'Eddie Dibbs really hits the hell out of the ball; he plays well.' They'll get their money's worth," said Benton, who has increased ticket prices modestly after holding the line against inflation for several years, despite rising costs.

Unfortunately, while raising the price by a perfectly reasonable amount he also stretched the tournament from seven days and eight sessions to eight days and 10 admissions.

The singles final is Saturday afternoon -- the only available time for the national Public Broadcasting Service but the tournament continues for two sessions thereafter, winding up the next day with only the doubles final and a third-place singles playoff for customers paying $8 and $6 for reserved seats.

"I think we have a damn good field, an attractive field -- the best of any $125,000 tournament in the country. It's insane that I have to be defensive about it -- we have four of the top 10 players in the world," Benton said.

"You can't build the sport around the schedules of five players. Tennis has got to be bigger than that. Should we cancel a tournament, here or anywhere else, because we can't get those people?

"If only the top five matter, why don't we scrap the tournament system and just have exhibitions? To hell with tournaments, let's go out and buy Jimmy Connors for a $25,000 guarantee, and that will be professional tennis. That's the logical extension of the argument."

All of which points out a fundamental flaw in the modern men's protennis circuit: no reasonable system exists for allocating the top players equitably to tournaments. Every tournament with more than $100,000 in prize money deserves at least one of the handful of best players, but many don't get theirs.

The Colgate Grand Prix -- 90-odd tournaments, with total purses of about $12 million -- is the major men's circuit, but some of the top players still withhold their support.

They would rather play a few tournaments here and there -- including Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, the foremost events in which a player can make a reputation -- and then free lance, merchandizing that reputation in big-money exhibitions, four-man round-robins, and made-for-TV special events.

The economics of pro tennis -- particularly the player payroll -- are out of whack. Many ungrateful players are indecently overpaid.

Borg and Connors each make about $2 million a year. Thirty-four men made more than $100,000 apiece last year in tournament winnings alone, exhibitions and endorsements aside. Dibbs made close to $500,000 and -- nice guy and good player though he may be -- as an entertainer, he is not a star of that magnitude.

The sad thing is that so many players -- fellows like Dibbs, who once said, "If it wasn't for tennis, I'd be a bag boy at Food Fair" -- don't appreciate their great good fortune.

This is not to knock "Fast Eddie," but only to point out that too many of his peers take their dollars for granted, and think it is their birthright. They should bless the Grand Prix, promoters and sponsors every day.

The tennis establishment has done a better job of selling, of drumming up prize money, that it has of educating its players to their responsibilities to the game.

When a sponsor puts up big bucks for a tournament on the PGA Tour, he doesn't know exactly which golfers will come -- but he can pretty much count on some of the crowdpullers being there. And at least he knows that if they don't play his event, they won't be in some competing event someplace else.

The reason is not that Jack Nicklaus and colleagues don't have the opportunity to play in lucrative "special events" the way Borg, Connors, Vilas, Gerulaitis and other tennis players regularly do. They have had tempting offers over the years, but they have resisted them in the interest of protecting the sponsors and tournament sturcture that are the lifeblood of the game that made them millionaires.