It seems like a long way down the tennis ladder from Wimbledon's courts to the battered clay of Cairo's Gezira Sporting Club, from the championship of the U.S. Open to the first round of the Egyptian International tournament.

That's where Stan Smith was. Stan Smith, star of the American Davis Cup team, champion at Wimbledon and Forest Hills. Remember him? There he is, blond and rangy as ever, struggling against an unranked opponent before a few hundred fans sitting on dusty concrete bleachers.

It sounds like the sad old sports tale of the over-the-hill hero who won't quit, hanging on in the bush leagues when his friends wish he would hang them up. But Smith, at 32, does not see it that way at all.

Although he is no longer top ranked or top seeded-even here he is second seeded behind Dick Stockton-Smith is no tennis bum. He is among the top 20 on the prize-money list of the Association of Touring Professionals and in the Colgate Grand Prix standings ahead of younger players with bigger names, and is one of the world's leading doubles players.

And now, he said, the elbow miseries that almost ended his career are behind him. "The elbow is more or less better now," he said, describing his ability as "95 percent" of what it was before the elbow brought him down in 1975. Even his service has come back, he said. "If I hit it right, it goes all right."

Sipping a soft drink beside the pool of his hotel on a glorious spring day, Smith hardly looked or sounded like an athlete who has fallen on hard times.

"I wanted to come here," he said. "I've traveled over so much of the world. I went to China. I was with a group that went to Burma. I'd never been anywhere in North Africa."

He said he was happy to comply with the new ATP regulation this year that players must participate in two of these obscure tournaments in which total prize money is $75,000 or less to be eligible for Grand Prix and Masters competition.

"Theoretically, any pro could be sent to any of these things, any tournament could get Connors or Ashe," he said. "Mostly, they have not had to send people where they don't want to go."

A few hours later, he played the last match of the opening round against Jiri Hrebec, a journeyman pro from Czechoslovakia. Smith is the big draw in this tournament, which has also attracted Mark Cox, the Amritraj brothers and Peter Feigl, in addition to Stockton, and the fans applauded warmly as Smith entered the stadium and his name went up in Arabic on the scoreboard.

In the first set, he looked like Smith the champion of memory.Mixing powerful volleys, deft drop shots and a strong serve, he romped, 6-1. But in the second set he began to miss.

Hrebec passed him regularly as Smith lost his control of the net and the edge went off his backhand. Down, 2-4, he held serve, and needed to break Hrebec to even the set.

With Hrebec serving at 30-40, Smith mis-hit a backhand that sailed over Hrebec's head and dropped at the baseline. Over boos and whistles from the fans and vigorous protests from Hrebec, the umpire called the shot good, giving Smith the game to pull even at 4-all.

Smith then served an ace and Hrebec quit, walking angrily off the court.

It was a victory, and at least in the first set he had not played badly. But it was not the convincing performance he seemed to have in mind earlier when he said that with his elbow healed, and still younger than Arthur Ashe, "I have no more excuses."