Chris Evert Lloyd comes into the $250,000 Colgate Series Championships, which begin Wednesday at Capital Centre, as both the No. 1 woman tennis player in the world and a sentimental crowd favorite. She isn't quite sure what that will be like. She has been the queen of tennis before, and the people's choice, but never at the same time.

At 26, Evert is like a grand actess who had a long-running smash, went into temporary eclipse, then returned to star in a triumphant rivival of the role with which she had become identified. The first time, she was admired for her professional skill and dignity, but perhaps taken for granted. Now she is not only respected, but beloved.

Evert was the exemplary champion of women's tennis from 1974 through 1978, the ice maiden, so cool, composed, and unerring that she was never fully appreciated. It only after she married British Davis Cup player John Lloyd in 1979, slipped to No. 3 in the rankings behind Martina Navratilova and Tracy Austin, then regained the top spot when she seemed most vulnerable that she finally became the darling of the public.

"I feel the crowds accept me a lot more not because they know I'm human," said Evert, whose return to the throne was one of the most romantic sports stories in 1980. "They know that I got married and had a slump. They know that I experience human feelings, and I'm not perfect. I just think I have a nice feeling about them now, and they have a nice feeling about me."

Evert plays Pam Shriver of Lutherville, Md., Wednesday evening, the last of four opening-day singles matches in this elite playoff. She is in a much better frame of mind than a year ago, when teen-ager Austin, her stylistic clone and her nemesis, trounced her twice in 72 hours here. A week later, Austin drubbed her again in Cincinnati. Shortly thereafter, Evert abruptly left for a four-month sabbatical, saying she was emotionally exhausted and tired of tennis. Friends say she was just tired of being away from her husband, who was off playing men's tournaments.

"Indoor tournaments aren't much fun anyway, but if I was enjoying my tennis, I would have played them," she said. "I always played the Virginia Slims tour before. It was a lonely part of the year for me, I wasn't real happy, but I enjoyed playing tennis. Last year was different. I gave it four tournaments, and match after match, week after week, I just got more miserable. I wasn't playing badly, but with my type of game, if I'm not eager I can't do well. I need all that mental energy, or else it's meaningless."

She enjoyed her four months as a lady of leisure, the respite from the constant pressure of the tour, but she started to miss tennis. She realized that the lifestyle that had started to grate was a very good life after all.

Still, she was of two minds. The commitment to excellence, the inner drive and consummate professionalism, are as much a part of her game as the two-fisted backhand. She knew this in her heart, but it took her husband to drive the point home.

"I said to her from the start that I was quite happy for her to play five more years, or 10 years, as long as she really wanted to," says John Lloyd. "But I said it was stupid for her to play just for the sake of playing, and not really go after being No. 1 again. I said, 'If you're just content to play at No. 3, that's fine, but I know you're not happy doing that. You've either got to go after it, 100 percent, or nothing.' The main thing I had to keep drumming into her was that she could be No. 1 again, because for a time she didn't believe it.

"It's hard to imagine that anyone with a record like Chris had could have such self-doubts, but she did. It was quite incredible to me. I kept thinking that if I had a record like hers, I'd never think I could lose to anybody. But she really did go through a crisis of confidence, which proves that it can happen to anyone. Everybody's human."

Eventually Evert decided she still had things to prove on the court -- to herself and to the many doubters who said she was mentally burned out and could not reach the top again. She set her return for May, in Europe on clay, the surface on which she has lost only one match in six years. Then she would see about the rest of the year, including Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

Her return has been a tour de force. She won 58 of 61 matches the rest of the year, dethroned 1978-79 champion Navratilova to reach the final at Wimbledon, beat Austin and Hana Mandlikova to win the U.S. Open, finished the year ranked No. 1 on the Women's Tennis Association computer, and won the hearts of tennis fans everywhere.

Losing the Wimbledon final to Evonne Goolagong Cawley was a crushing disappointment, but she took it philosophically. "I think if I had won that, I might not have won the U.S. Open. I always think that way -- that there's a reason for everything that happens," she said. "After losing to Evonne, I was determined to win the Open, and really worked hard."

Winning the Open in front of her dad, who had never been there to watch her win a major title before, was the crowning achievement of a year in which she also took the French, Italian, Canadian, and U.S. Clay Court titles. She glowed with self-satisfaction, and the public embraced her with a warmth and affection she had not experienced before.

"I think victory is sweeter when it's tougher, when you have to overcome barriers. For a while there, when I was dominating, maybe tennis was too easy for me. I didn't appreciate it as much," she says.

"I don't think there will ever be another 1980 for me. I don't think 1981 can top it. I wish I could, but I don't think so. It was the whole thing of dropping to No. 3 and then coming back, beating Martina at Wimbledon to open the door again, beating Tracy and winning the Open with my father there, just regaining my enthusiasm. I don't think there's anything left to prove, but I want to keep playing as long as I enjoy it. If I have the same feelings, the same love for the game, that I had in 1980, win or lose, I can accept anything that happens."