The stories emanating from the upper region of women's tennis recently have had an old, familiar ring to them, a touch of deja vu.

Chris Evert Lloyd wins Italian Open.

Evert spearheads U.S. Federation Cup defense.

Steady Evert advances in French Open, clay court streak grows.

Evert looks ahead to Wimbledon.

But headlines out of Europe the last three weeks have prompted a common response from the casual tennis fan back in the United States: Hey, didn't she retire?

The answer, obviously, is no.

Evert, the erstwhile Ice Maiden of the courts, who has proved to be more human and emotionally fragile than most people ever imagined, dropped off the women's tour in January because she needed time to reconcile the demands of her marriage and her career.

She needed time to take stock, to sort out the conflicts between her personal and professional lives. But she was careful not to say that she had retired.

"I never said that once. I went out of my way to say, listen, I'm going to take three months off, and then I'm going to decide whether to play on or retire." Evert emphasized during a rambling interview at Stade Roland Garros, where she reached the semifinals of the French Open today by thrashing Pennsylvanian Kathy Jordan, 6-2, 6-0.

She was generally relaxed and chatty -- but occasionally defensive and frosty -- as she discussed her abrupt and uncharacteristic departure from the tournament circuit last winter after three galling defeats in two weeks at the hands of teen-ager Tracy Austin.

She is full of uncertainty even now about her decision to return to competition last month. She has won 13 straight matches on the slow clay that has always been her best surface, bringing her current clay court streak to 32 matches. She has won 157 of 158 matches on clay since the summer of 1973, losing only to Austin, her stylistic clone, in last year's Italian Open.

So far, so good. But Evert has not yet had to play Martina Navratilova or Austin, the two players ranked ahead of her, since her return. She is not sure how she will feel when she steps off the clay and onto the grass at Wimbledon.

When she sent in a belated Wimbledon entry last week, she said at a press conference: If I was only 80 percent eager, I wouldn't have decided to play. My record has been too good there. I've never lost before the semifinals. I just really wanted to be eager and in top form before I submitted an entry."

Privately, however, she admitted she has apprehensions.

"I could be happy about my tennis right now because I've been playing on clay, because I'm winning, because of a lot of reasons," she said. "I'm not saying now that I'll be eager for the next three months."

"I enjoy playing, but I'm still holding back. I would like to put myself on the line, you know, and give it all I've got. But maybe I'm a little afraid of failing. I've always been afraid of that. I'm getting a little closer to the line and it's a little bit scary."

She knows she will never again be the single-minded tennis phenomenon she was before she fell in love with British Davis Cup player John Lloyd, whom she married April 17, 1979.

She wants a private life. She can't cope any more with the constant pressures of stardom, the extraordinary demands of being the No. 1 player and exemplary champion that she was for five years.

But neither is she ready to hang up her rackets and be a full-time wife or mother. The competitive fires might not burn as brightly as they once did, but there are still glowing embers.

She has ambition and the perquisites of celebrity are intoxicating -- even for one as wholesome, level-headed and appealingly girl-next-doorish as the former Christine Marie Evert of Fort Lauderdale.

"I couldn't just stop and retire in January," she says. "I don't feel like I've reached my peak. I still can improve. I just think I would have looked back in 10 years and regretted it if I had quit.

"Also the grass isn't always greener on the other side. You think it is, when you see normal people living normal lives and having children, but I still think that we have a great life, playing tennis and traveling. You've just got to find a balance."

That balance is maddeningly elusive, and she is still trying to fine tune the scales.

She enjoyed her three months off. She accompanied her husband, a journeymen pro who has been struggling with his own career since he met her, to some of his tournaments. She went home to Fort Lauderdale. She visited friends. She puttered around, writing letters and watching soap operas, indulgences she didn't have time for when she was on the tour.

"A lot of times I just watched TV and read and talked on the phone. I felt that I needed to recharge myself, and that's what I did," she said. "I very rarely get bored. There are always things to do: fixing up the house, going home to see my mom and dad and Clare (youngest of the five Evert kids, the only one still at home), going out and practicing a little bit to stay sharp. I think I'm basically a lazy person anyway so those things suited me fine."

But tennis has been such a big part of her life for so long, she was not ready to give it up. The tour beckoned. It wasn't yet time to cut the cord. r

"I took my rest and I wanted to come back. I missed it," she says. "I wasn't really ready to travel around with John for 12 months a year, and totally devote myself to him. He didn't want me to do that, either. He wanted me to play. He wanted me to play all along. He still feels that I love it, that it's an important part of me."

Billie Jean King, replaced by Evert as the No. 1 player in women's tennis, knows how difficult it is, psychologically, to slip from being queen of the hill. She thinks that Everrt must accept the natural order of things and realize that Navratilova and Austin's time has come. She knows it is difficult.

"If you've been No. 1, the first year or two you're not, people really zing out on you. They say, 'what does it feel like not to be No. 1?'" said King, stifling a wince at the notion after all these years.

"I think that right now, Chris is going through a period of adjustment to that. But then you have to decide, I really love tennis and to heck with what other people think, I'm going to keep playing. Or if I can't be No. 1 anymore, I can't handle it.

"That's what it really comes down to. You have to ask yourself those things.

"Generally when you've been No. 1 you feel there's no other way. You think, "I don't want to be in this game unless I'm the best.' Then you find out how much you really just love to play. You know you're not going to win as much, but you're still capable of winning tournaments and maybe a major title here and there.

"If you can come to grips with that, and just play because it's a game and you know you love it and you enjoy entertaining people, then you can keep going," King went on. "But you have to go through that transitional period."

King has made her decision. She is playing well again at 36, determined to devote full effort to tennis one more time after three knee operations and surgery on her heel 17 months ago.

"I just feel that it's temporary and it's better to go for it when you can because eventually you get to an age when you can't be out there even if you want to be," she said. "It's a physical profession. That's something athletes have to come to grips with and I think it's important not to have any regrets later on. Most things in life you can put aside and come back to later. Not sports. I think that's what makes us jocks so insecure sometimes."

King thinks that Evert has several more years of exceptional tennis in her, but that she has been shell-shocked for the first time in her career. She has seen the future, and it looks like Tracy Austin -- waves of terrible tots with strong legs, and stronger wills, able to hit for hours from the baseline without making a mistake, two-fisted on the backhand, as was the teen-age Evert.

"It only takes one kid to wake up, one person with your own style who can beat you at your own game, and all of a sudden it hits you that a new generation has arrived that's going to be just as good, if not better, than you were," says King.

"It takes time for a person to accept that but Chris should see that she caused it. She was a great example to all those kids who are coming along. I tell her: You're the cause, and the kids are the effect.

"She should take pride in that, in the fact that she caused the next generation to be better, because that's what sports is all about. But it's tough to think in those terms when you're out there against the little buggers, and they're beating your brains out.

"I think that once Chris realizes that Tracy can play great, and says, 'Okay I'm going to bust my gut and play as hard as I can,' they could have some unbelievable matches. I think that Chris is capable of beating Tracy, but she's got to believe that she can.

"I just think that once Chris gets over the initial shock, she'll be all right. I think that when Chris gets her mind straightened out, she can continue to play at a fantastic level."

Evert concedes that four losses to Austin -- in the final of last year's U.S. Open, and then the rapid-fire trio of defeats in January, two in the round-robin Colgate Series Championships in Washington and the other at Cincinnati -- contributed to her decision to withdraw from the rest of the Avon women's tour, even though she had commitments to play in other tournaments.

"I think that was part of it. I'm not going to deny it. I was very discouraged at that point," she says, "but the most important thing was that I was unhappy even before I got to Tracy. I played well and won some matches and I still hated it.

"I can't describe the feeling, but I just didn't want to be out there. I felt the same way at the end of 1977. I took four months off. I felt like I was being forced to do something I didn't want to do, like I was being dragged out there.

"I'd get up in the morning and my neck and shoulders would be tight. I was tense, I never wanted to resent my tennis, but I had gotten to that stage. My father couldn't understand how a game that is so healthy could give me such emotional conflicts, but I couldn't handle it any more. After a match, I'd be in tears," she said.

"I was discouraged by losing to Tracy, but even if I had beaten her, I don't think it would have made any difference, because my heart wasn't in it. I just didn't want to play matches. I just really felt burned out."

She doesn't feel that way now. Off the court, she looks terrific -- slim, tanned, relaxed. Her dry, understated sense of humor is much in evidence as she chats with other players and old acquaintances.

But on the court, she still looks apprehensive. Her ground strokes don't have their old unerring depth and bite.

"You can hear the difference," says Chuck Bennett, traveling publicist for the women's tour, with a touch of wistful sadness in his voice, like a fellow of 30 who has just realized that the Beatles will never be together again. "When the ball came off her racket, it used to be like a pistol shot. Now it sounds too many times like a muffled popgun."

Evert misses some shots she used to be able to make in her sleep -- more often on the forehand, but sometimes even on the deadly backhand. It is strange to see her reenacting strokes in mime after missing them, her nose wrinkled with the quizzical look of a musician trying to recall a tune that she used to know by ear.

Evert has not decided yet what she will do beyond Wimbledon. She will make up her mind in the next two weeks whether to play tournaments in the U.S. this summer, and if so how many.

She wants to play. She wants to win. But she is determined not to bottle all the enormous pressures up inside again. Marriage, she says, has mellowed her and opened new vistas. She cannot be the ice Maiden anymore.

She was such a superb champion, as steady emotionally as she was on the court, always setting a high standard of professionalism and living up to it. She never had volcanic eruptions like the volatile King, never let all the pressures out. She kept them inside. Five years of this took its toll.

"It was a question of how long it was humanly possible to keep up that type of consistency and attitude, on the court and off," she said.

"When I did get away, there was a great sense of relief, and release . . . Things have to be different on the court now. I'm not going to allow myself to feel as much pressure as I used to.

"I can't let it get back to that point because I won't be happy if I do. I'll just be back in the same situation I was before I stopped. Things have to change, and maybe I'll lose a little bit of consistency and concentration because of it. But it's necessary."

It is all a matter of finding that delicate balance. But Chris Evert definitely has not retired.