Jimmy Connors had just answered a question in the group the French Open tennis championships. As soon as he paused, a translator repeated his remarks in an impressive burst of rapid-fire French.

"That about says it all," he said.

A few moments later, Connors gave a curt, 10-second answer to a question he did not particularly like. The translation lasted 30 seconds. $ Connors looked quizically at the interpreter assigned by the French Tennis Federation. "I said all that?" he asked.

There was a time not so long ago when tennis-playing Americans in Paris - in fact, tennis-playing foreigners all over Europe - considered language barriers a major disadvantage, not so much in press conferences as on the court.

"Guy who spoke the native language could rob you blind," said Australian Barry Phillips-Moore, who played throughout the continent in the 1960s and early '70s.

"They'd manipulate the umpire and linesmen, create a big furor, and always win the argument because you didn't know what they were saying. The whole thing made you feel bloody helpless."

Americans and Australians particularly felt this peculiar sort of culture shock. They found the idiosyncrasies of European tournaments rather forbidding.

They sensed an unspoken plot to bring down the champions of fast courts - the grass of Australia, Wimbledon and pre-1975 Forest Hills, plus the cement indigenous to America - by making them play on painfully slow, over-watered red-clay courts with heavy, pressureless balls.

This was a combination that rendered the serve-and-volley tactics of fast courts practically useless. Many an overseas hotshot was humbled in Rome, Paris and Hamburg by crafty Europeans bred on the brick-colored clay, who weaved an intricate and deadly web of drop shots, lobs and diabolical little angles and cruel passing shots.

Adding to the abject frustration of the foreigners was the vague notion that everyone was out to make their life an ordeal. Umpire, linesmen, tournament organizers and committees all seemed engaged in a giant conspiracy to help the clever player who had been around and spoke the local tongue, at the expense of his naive and uninitiated counterpart.

The worldly and experienced players appeared to have an inestimable edge in arranging practice courts, transportation, even reasonable prematch meals.

"Wehn an American first came over to play in Europe 10 or 15 years ago," Texan Cliff Richey said, "you pretty much felt you were stepping onto the European players' turf, and you did so at your own risk. You didn't expect to do very well. But all that has changed. The tennis circuit has become pretty much universal."

Indeed, foreigners playing in the great clay-court championships of Europe no longer expect to be seduced and abandoned, fleeced and sacrificed for the pleasure of noisy crowds.

Unique in the world of sport, professional tennis is now one sprawling, international tree, with American, European, African and Far Eastern Branches.

There is still room for national color and favor, to be sure, but the newfound homogeneity was never more evident than in the past two weeks, at the Italian and French Opens - the two most important clay-court events of Europe.

The courts are still slow, and look like finely ground flower pots, but playing conditions have been quickened by adoption of pressurized, American-style balls: white Wilsons in Rome, Yellow Penns in Paris.

These fly through the air faster, fluff up more slowly, and do not become saturated with moisture like the pressureless Pirellis and Tretorn - balls that used to be common in Europe - likened to melons by players exasperated at their inability to put them aways.

"It is still difficult to end a point on clay. The game requires tactics and thought. But now it is more possible, and the good players appreciate this," said Pierre Darmon, runner-up in the French championship in 1963 and the tourament director here until this year.

The jewels of European tennis have been "Americanized" in other ways: infused with big prize money, commerical sponsorship and elaborate promotion.

A "tennis boom" is on in Europe, similar to the one of the early '70s in America. Record crowds have flocked to Ford Italico in Rome and Stade Roland Garros in Paris, and they have been wooed to elaborate merchandise marts and trade booths selling everything from rackets to souvenir stamps.

Prize money for 64 men in Rome was $200,000. The Women's Italian Open was held two weeks earlier as a separate $125,000 event, but it was sparsely attended. The French Open is offering $331,431 for 128 men and $153,259 for 64 women, making it the second richest tournament in the world, behind only the U.S. Open.

The tournament are part of the Colgate Grand Prix (men) and the Colgate International Series (women), circuits linked by point systems and unified by standardized rules and procedures.

In vivid contrast to the way things were less than a decade ago, entries are accepted and seedings determined according to computerized rankings.

There is no finagling of the draw in back rooms. Tournaments are governed by regulations and "codes of conduct" enacted by the Men's and Women's International Professional Tennis Councils, tripartile bodies made up of three representatives each of players, tournament directors and the International Tennis Federation.

In the men's events, local officials are being overseen for the first time by travelling "Grand Prix supervisors," who have the responsibility for insuring uniform application of the rules. They are the final arbiters of all on-court disputes.

English is now the common language of international tennis. Many matches in Rome and Paris, especially on the stadium courts, are officiated by bilingual umpires, some imported for the sake of neutrality and efficiency.

The Italian final, for instance, was umpired by an English real-estate agent named Mike Lugg.

In Rome, particularly, foreign players facing natives on Foro Italico's "Campo Central" (center court) used to feel like ancient Christians being fed to the lions.

Everyone - from the spectators to the blazered tournament officials and referee to the linesmen - wanted the Italians to do well, and if it took a little larceny to help them along, so be it.

But in Rome this year, there was no thievery, no intimidation - and not coincidentally, no Italian in the final for the first time in four years.

Reacting to the wretched excesses of 1978, when the raucous crowds at Foro Italico helped local idol Adriano Panatta to the final by throwing coins and soft-drink cans at his opponents and goading linesmen into outrageous calls, tournament officials printed "rules of behavior" on every ticket sold.

Amazingly, the majority of spectators took these guidelines to heart.

Tournament officials recruited and trained young linesmen - mostly teaching professionals - and got consistently good officiating. Just in case of problems, three of the four globe-trotting "Grand Prix supervisors" were on duty in Rome.

The result was officiating so impartial that the Italian players, accustomed for so many years to getting a little help from their friends, complained.

Stubby Paolo Bertolucci, nicknamed "The Pasta Kid," told Rino Tommasi, a leading Italian tennis journalist:

"You have ruined it for us. You were writing all the time that the Italian linesmen helped the Italian players. Now they have stopped this. It is so fair, it is unfair for us."

In Paris - where incompetence rather than nationalism was the root of so many arguments - the officiating has been similarly upgraded.

Younger, better-trained umpires and linesmen have been dressed up in natty outfits and sent out to replace old men who sometimes fell asleep, or read newspapers, during matches they were working.

All this has made foreigners more anxious to play in Rome and Paris. The Franch Open, particularly, is now unquestionably worthy of its status as the only clay-court leg of the Grand Slam. The field is exceptionally strong, and the facilities, amenities and organization are equal, if not superior, to those of any other tournament in the world.

However, American-style progress has not spoiled the distinctive local character of the Italian and French championships. Rome remains the eternal city, eternally fascinating, and Paris the City of Lights that no one can take lightly.