As the new year begins, one moment, perhaps more than any other in tennis, is worth remembering from the old.

Martina Navratilova--the expatriate Czech who defected in 1975, became a U.S. citizen in 1981 and learned the hard way about freedom of the press when her relationship with gay activist Rita Mae Brown became public--had just lost two tiebreakers and the U.S. Open to Tracy Austin. The crowd, which once might have been hostile or at least indifferent, stood and cheered. Cheered so long she had to wait, tears rolling down her cheeks, for the runner-up trophy.

They were cheers of acceptance for an athlete, for a sport. As women's tennis begins 1982--in Washington Monday with the $200,000 Avon Championships at the Smith Center--that moment is more meaningful than any statistic in showing the growth of the sport and its audience. "We came through a crisis stronger than before," said Navratilova. "When everything hits the fan, you either fall apart or you get stronger. That happened to me personally and it happened to women's tennis."

The year was dominated not by a player but by the news players made off the court. Billie Jean King was sued by a former lover, Marilyn Barnett, and made headlines; Navratilova made headlines. Pam Shriver cussed out Tracy Austin in Canada and made headlines. The tour may not have come through "unscathed" as Navratilova put it, but it did come through intact.

Avon, the sponsor of the winter tour, received only 19 negative letters, said Kathrine Switzer, director of sports programs, "less than when we change a lipstick shade." Ticket sales for the Avon Championships are running 25 percent ahead of last year. Fears that negative publicity might damage the tour's image have proven unfounded.

Partly that was because the level of competition was better than ever. "They (fans) just said, 'We do enjoy tennis regardless of what you do in your private life,' " Navratilova said. "You can't even pick the No. 1 player because everyone is playing so well."

The Women's Tennis Association computer and the U.S. Tennis Association both ranked Chris Evert Lloyd first, Austin second and Navratilova third. The International Tennis Federation has not yet released its rankings.

"We had four Grand Slam events and four people won," said Navratilova, who won the Australian Open. "At the top everyone is so close. I think the depth is better in women's tennis than in men's tennis." Hana Mandlikova won the French, Evert won Wimbledon and Austin won the U.S. Open.

There are those who complain that women's tennis does not have a great single rivalry such as Borg-McEnroe. "We don't," said Barbara Potter, ranked sixth in the U.S. "Men's tennis at the top level is better than women at the top. But it's not any more exciting."

In 1982, most players hope the excitement will be generated predominantly on the court. According to Jerry Diamond, executive director of the WTA, Avon--which has sponsored the indoor circuit since 1979--must decide by Jan. 15 whether it will sponsor the tour after this year.

Toyota reportedly may get out of tennis after 1982, although John Beddington, executive director of the Toyota Series, says there is no evidence the company will not exercise its option, which it must do at the end of February.

Even if it fails to, that "wouldn't be a tragedy," Diamond said. The tour would only lose 32 percent of its sponsorship money if both Toyota and Avon withdraw. (Toyota puts up $1.2 million and Avon $2.2 million in prize money)

"Last year we had problems with player commitments," Switzer said, and that will be the determining factor in whether Avon renews. Last year, Austin missed the indoor season because of sciatica, Evert played one tournament and Evonne Goolagong gave birth to her second child and played none.

This year, Austin, Mandlikova, Navratilova, Andrea Jaeger and Shriver are all committed to playing at least five Avon tournaments. All five were scheduled to play in Washington, but Mandlikova withdrew because of a recurring back injury. Evert will play two tournaments.

Injuries last year to Jaeger, Austin and Mandlikova raised questions about whether the rigors of the tour create unnatural growing pains. Unquestionably, the players are young, younger, youngest. Austin, 19, Jaeger, 16, and Kathy Rinaldi, the youngest ever to win a match at Wimbledon, 14, will all play this week in Washington. In 1979, the average age of the quarterfinalists at the U.S. Open was 26.37; in 1980 it was 19.80.

Shriver, who is ranked sixth by the WTA computer and is finally coming into her own after years of struggling with a shoulder injury, said, "I was 6 feet tall and 17 and a hard-server. It tore my shoulder apart. If I hadn't gotten stronger, there were would have been no way."

"They don't take care of their bodies the way they should," said Navratilova. "It's one thing to play for fun five or six hours a day. It's another to practice four hours for a match and then play on the circuit. The pressure their parents put on them is unbelievable . . . They don't live normal lives. I think they should start a little later."

Austin's New Year's resolution for the tour is a six-week "circuit-breaker" to give the players time off. Diamond says that wouldn't be such a bad idea. Right now, the women play 49 weeks a year.

"Probably we should be playing nine less," he said. "Our biggest problem is that women aren't lured to tournaments by prize money anymore . . . Everyone knows they can earn $500,000 to $1 million regardless (of where they play). Why not play the tournaments they want to play?"

In 1978, the total prize money was $5.5 million; this year it was $10.2 million. "It's a healthy scene financially and healthy for drawing people into the sport, but we don't want to dilute the circuit," he said.

There were temper tantrums, and new but hardly startling evidence that women athletes, too, know how to curse. The WTA adopted a disciplinary code that goes into effect this week, establishing fixed fines and allowing officials to default a player after two warnings. Still, as Beddington says, "If you were to ask that amazing man in the street what he remembered from 1981, it would be John McEnroe's behavior at Wimbledon," not "a bit of a to-do about Billie Jean and Martina."