Brian Gottfried, who has won the $125,000 Volvo tennis tournament at George Washington University's Smith Center the past two years, broke a recent four-match losing streak against Arthur Ashe last night to again reach the final.

Gottfried returned serve and volleyed superbly in a patchy but exciting 6-1, 7-5 victory over Ashe. He will play his old friend and prep school classmate Roscoe Tanner for the $24,000 top prize today (WETA-TV-26, 2 p.m.).

Tanner also overcame a particularly troublesome rival to reach the final. He had never beaten former doubles partner Marty Riessen, but flogged the 37-year-old veteran, 6-2, 6-3, in a bizarre and lifeless afternoon semifinal played before only 441 bored spectators.

Gottfried and Ashe provided much more entertainment for an evening audience of about 4,500.

Ashe was inconsistent on both serve and return, but mixed enough blazing winners with an assortment of change-ups to fuel the hopes of his fans until the end.

He escaped one match point as Gottfried served at 5-4, 40-30, broke back to 5-all, but lost his serve again in the next game. This time Gottfried, boring in behind first serves to slash away bloodthirsty volleys, did not let his man escape.

At its best monents, this was a scintillating duel between two aggressive swordsmen. Sparks flew as they thrust and parried; crunching volleys met whistling passing shots like steel clashing against steel.

At other times they played a more subtle game, taking pace off the ball with dinks and little angled shots, trying to break up each other's rhythm.

Ashe, who lost his serve on a bad line call in the second game of the match, discovered early that Gottfried was returning sharply, timing his passing shots well and feasting on speed.

In the fifth game, at 15-30, Gottfried reflex-volleyed a sizzling Ashe, backhand then volleyed an outright winner off a follow-up missile.

After this discouraging experience, Ashe started mixing in "junk" -- mostly dinks and soft-angled volleys -- but Gottfried handled that well, too. He was willing to play cat-and-mouse, maneuvering for position instead of trying to hit winning volleys off soft stuff from below the net.

"He was getting into the groove of hitting the ball hard, and I was making the error first off rallies, so I had to do something to change the pace," reasoned Ashe.

"I tried to make him generate his own pace, but he was patient. He didn't make the mistake inexperienced players do of trying to go for too much off the soft balls."

Gottfried -- who had lost to Ashe in the final of a Grand Prix tournament at Los Angeles in September and three times this year -- also was a man with a plan.

After phone consultation with his coaches, Dennis Ralston (the former U. S. Davis Cup captain) and Nick Bolletieri, he decided to change pace on Ashe, too.

He steamed in behind good first serves, crowding the net and crackling aggressive volleys, but stayed back most of the time on his second serves.

"In the other matches against him, I just tried to play my usual game -- come in on everything," said Gottfried. "But Arthur can really tee off on second serves. I decided to stay back -- as a matter of self-defense. I've been hit by Arthur's returns a few times, and they hurt."

Gottfried is actually an easy-going, placid fellow, but when he leans into a serve or gobbles up a volley, he all but snarls. He has close-set, beady eyes, and he curls his lip, plants his tongue in his cheek, and puts on a grim and menacing game face.

"He served better than he has in ages," said Ashe, who was startled to learn that Gottfried put only 50 percent of his first serves in the court in the first set. Those that did go in were so effective that his percentage seemed better.

Every time Ashe seemed about to be overwhelmed, he produced a few blurs -- a rocket serve or volley or backhand return.

But, like the mythical Sisyphus, he was always rolling a rock uphill. He kept coming from behind, but niver got on top.

Ashe held serve from 0-40 in the first game of the second set with five great shots, shoved Gottfried to 30-40 in the next game with three more screamers, but didn't get the break. He then played a terrible game to lose his serve, but broke back to 2-all.

So it went, Gottfried holding for 4-4 after two deuces, taking advantage of Ashe's faltering first serve to break for 5-4, then losing his serve after having a match point.

Ashe partisans in the crowd cheered wildly, but Gottfried pushed him to the wall again: 15-40. Ashe saved one break point, then sealed his doom. He served deep to the backhand corner but, with Gottfried losing his footing behind the baseline as he tried to change direction, pushed an easy forehand volley long.

This time, Gottfried served out the match. Ashe blistered another backhand return winner to get to 30-all, but Gottfried again got to match point with a tigerish forehand cross-court volley. He missed his first serve, but Ashe went for another big backhand return and netted it.

The Tanner-Riessen match was much more commonplace, a comedy of distractions.

Because of a microphone failure, the umpire called the score with a bullhorn. A television cameraman clambered clumsily at courtside, sticking his lens in the players' faces at change games, and bad line calls came in disturbing numbers.

For good measure, two balls went prematurely dead in the first set, causing a lengthly delay as officials scurried for replacements -- used ones -- because new balls are put in play only after the first nine games of a match and every 11 games thereafter.

All this preyed on Riessen's concentration more than Taner's. After playing with youthful verve in beating Victor Pecci, Stan Smith and top seed Eddie Dibbs, he looked sluggish and played sloppily.

"I didn't feel tried, but maybe I was. I must have been a step slow because I was always reaching for the ball, a little off-balance, never quite in position and out in front of the ball," Riessen said.

"And Roscoe played well, too. He didn't do it with his serve today. I hit some pretty good volleys into the corners, and he ran them all down and passed me. He returned serve, passed, and covered the court exceptionally well."

Tanner did serve 10 aces, including two at 5-3 in the second set, and he served for the match for the second time. But he won this match, ending his career-long frustration against Riessen, with other skills.

Gottfried and Tanner, both 27, are 4-4 against each other as pros.

Gottfried had won three meetings in a row until last month. Tanner caught him on an off day and whipped him, 6-4, 6-2, in the final of the $250,000 Volvo Tennis Games at Rancho Mirage, Calif.