The $250,000 Colgate Series Championship, which begins Wednesday, at Capital Centre, already has achieved considerable stature within the tennis community. Even though it is only 3 years old, most of the players on the women's tour now regard it as one of the four most important women's tournaments of the year.

Because it was played in November (read: football season) the past two years at a country club and condominium complex in Palm Springs, Calif., which one visiting Englishman aptly referred to as "a curious plastic desert," the tournament has been something of a trade secret. But this year, with its move east to Washington, it is going public and may get the attention it deserves.

The Series Championship is the women's equivalent of the men's Grand Prix Masters, played the following there week at Madison Square Garden in New York. It is the finale of a far-flung circuit of tournaments, the climactic playoff for the season's top eight performers, based on points earned throughout the year.

The eight women participating in the double-elimination singles event -- Chris Evert Lloyd, Martina Navratilova, Tracy Austin, Evonne Goolagoing, Wendy Turnbull, Kerry Reid, Dianne Fromholtz and Regina Marsikova -- were arguably the best women tennis players in the world in 1979. m

They earned their places here over the Derby distance, in 33 tournaments, on various surfaces and in all kinds of playing conditions: indoors and out, on grass and clay and cement and carptet, through sickness and health and, in the notable case of Evert Lloyd, marriage.

The Colgate International Series for 1979 actually began in November 1978, at Christchurch, New Zealand, where Marsikova -- the steady 21-year-old Czech stalwart -- beat talented young Germam left-hander Sylvia Hanika to grab a short-lived early lead in the standings.

The circuit touched on four continents add included the four traditional Grand Slam tournaments: the now sadly weak Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

For topping the cumulative point standings, the eight players already haven taken the biggest slices of a bonus pie cut into 35 pieces of diminishing size. Shares of the $750,000 "bonus pool" are scaled according to a player's order of finish in the year-long race.

Evert Lloyd for instance, will collect $115,000 for leading the points table for the third consecutive year. Navratilova, the Wimbledon champion, gets $75,000 for finishing second Austin, the U.S. Open Champion who turned 17 this month receives $52,000 for third place.

Goolagong's bonus for finishing fourth is $39,000. Turnbull pockets $32,000 for fifth place. Reid $27,000 for sixtt, Fromholtz $24,000 for seventh, and Marsikova $22,000 for eighth.

Turnbull earned another $25,000 for heading the doubles standings, followed by Betty Stove ($18,000), Anne Smith ($14,000), Ilana Kloss ($12,300), Billie Jean King ($10,000), Navratilova ($8,300), Rosemary Casals ($8,200) and Bettyann Stuart ($6,000).

The top eight singles players and top four doubles teams (Turnbull-Stove, Kloss-Stuart, Navratilova-King, Casals-Evert Lloyd) also qualified for the showdown at Capital Centre. Whatever prize money they win this week will be in addition to their shares of the bonus pool.

Play begins at 1 p.m. Wednesday with Goolagong meeting Marsikova and Navratilova against Reid. The night matches, which begin at 7, have Lloyd against Fromholtz and Austin versus Turnbull, followed by doubles.

The woman who emerges as the singles champion on Monday evening, Jan. 7, will receive a $75,000 check, a Waterford crystal trophy and a $15,000 Peugeot automible. (One wonders if Austin, who was searching for time to get her learner's permit between tournaments, would have room for another car in her garage along with the two Porsches she has won in the past 14 months.)

The runner-up in singles will collect $40,000; the third place finisher, $22,000; and the fourth place woman, $17,000. Fifth through eighth places are worth $11,000, $9,000, $7,000 and $6,000, respectively.

The winning doubles team will divide $30,000 (each players gets a Waterford trophy), while the runners-up will split $16,000. Third and fourth places are worth $10,000 and $7,000 per team.

The professional esteem in which the players hold the Series Championship was evidenced by the fact that King, the grand old lady of women's tennis, last month went to Australia to play in two tournaments in a last-ditch effort to qualify.

She began the final tournament to Sydney 10 points behind Marsikova and apparently headed for a quarter-final showdown against her. But King was upset in the second round by Stuart, the statuesque Californian who served mightily on the grass at White City Stadium that day, and thus will be here only as a doubles player.

"The four most important women's touraments at the moment are Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, the Avon Championships (the eight-women playoff for the Avon winter tour) and the Colgate Series Championship," says Evert Lloyd, who significantly rates the two playoff events ahead of the French Open, the premier clay-court title and the biggest tournament she won this year.

"A number of the top women haven't played the French in the last few years. I hope they will again in the future now that there is no World Team Tennis during that time. But right now, the other tournaments are more important because all the top women play in them, and that has to be the standard."

The past two years, the Colgate Series Championship has been important in deciding the No. 1 women's ranking for the year. Both times, Evert Lloyd won it in impressive fashion, and edged out Navratilova for the mythical honor in the eyes of most observors.

This year, Navratilova already has wrapped No. 1, by virtue of her triumphs at the Avon Championships and Wimbledon, and her head-to-head records or 4-2 over Lloyd and 6-5 over Austin. Some would make a case for Austin, who has beaten Navratilova in their last four meetings starting in the semifinals of the U.S. Open, but the expatriate Czech left-hander's overall record is slightly stronger.

The tournament at Capital Centre will be televised only by the Madison Square Garden cable network, but a press contingent of some 75 writers, including several from Europe, will give it international exposure. So finally, after two years in Palm Springs, where the audience leaves at cocktail time no matter how thrilling the tennis might be, a championship the players value highly is coming out of the desert.