There is a temptation to ask only about her backhand, to say we already know enough.

But Martina Navratilova, who had a very public year, would like you to know this: "I'm happier than I was a year ago. Not only am I happy but I've got myself together. I'm on the way up instead of down. I've arrived."

For Navratilova, who is playing in the Avon Championships of Washington, 1981 was a year of great emotional turns. "Traumatic," she said, "up and down, a giant roller-coaster ride."

Last summer, Navratilova, 25, became a U.S. citizen--"I felt like I won a match, my longest one, six years." Soon after, her relationship with gay activist Rita Mae Brown, which ended last spring, became public. The scrutiny was intense.

Throughout it all, she carried herself with grace and dignity. She also managed to win 86 percent of her matches and 10 tournaments (more than any other woman) including the Avon championship and the Australian Open. If she had won the Toyota Series championship in December, instead of losing to Tracy Austin, 2-6, 6-4, 6-2, she might have been ranked No. 1 for 1981. She finished No. 3.

When she lost in the final of the U.S. Open, also to Austin, and also after being one set ahead, the crowd stood and applauded while she cried. "I wanted to say, 'I love you, too. But, by God, please stop, I want to quit crying.' I've always been accused of wearing my emotions on my sleeve. I guess they were more obvious than that. It was like I was holding up a big sign: 'I'm emotional.' I'm a big softie. People never thought that. On the court I seem hard because I try so hard.

"I couldn't stop crying. I felt so bad I lost and so good about what the people were doing for me. I said, 'Next year, I'm going to win.' "

There is sadness in the fact that it took a crisis for people to see the vulnerability, to see her for what she is. And she very much wants that. The problem, she says, is with "people who don't know me. They only know my image, the brat I was in 1976. An image takes a long time to change. I'm a lot more feminine on the court and off. On TV, I look big standing next to Chris and Tracy. I'm not the all-American girl. They think I'm a hopeless case."

She laughs. She deflects a lot with humor. "You have to," she said. "If you can't laugh, you might as well lie down and cry or die."

She is also capable of excruciating and touching honesty. One day at the Open, she confessed that people were beginning to tell her she's pretty, that they never did that before unless "they got up close."

"I've always had a hard time with that," she said. "I never felt I was pretty. People were always calling me a tomboy." She is pleased when people notice the change.

There are other changes, too, ones she does not feel nearly so positive about. She has learned "to be really careful who I talk to, what I say. . . I've learned to be a diplomat, to be lawyerly, and I despise lawyers."

In recent weeks, for example, there have been newspaper stories saying she is going to get married. "Oh, yes," she said, "'Wedding bells for Martina.' Give me a break. That's serious business. They at least could have checked it out with me. Yeah, I've been dating a guy but, no, we're not talking about marriage. If I decide to get married, I'll be the first to announce it. Too much of my life has come out secondhand."

She seems constantly in the position of clarifying, denying, explaining her personal relationships. She knows that there will be people who will attribute the recent stories as attempts to improve her image. "It's been suggested that I stick a guy in the stands, and go out on dates," she said. "If I go out on dates it's because I like someone . . . If I do get married it's because I want to, not because somebody wants me to."

She says the publicity about her private life has had no effect on her endorsements, although with one year to go on her shoe contract with Spaulding, she wonders what will happen. "It hasn't helped . . . They haven't been banging down the doors but they weren't before, either," she said.

She does not think women's tennis has suffered. "Everybody worried about it. Everybody worried too much. Things tend to be blown out of proportion. This was spiced up because it was between two women. The public said, 'Oh, well.' They didn't care that much and why should they?"

What she cares about now is getting on with her life and beyond her past, beyond answering questions about it. She has "learned to work hard again like when I was 15 or 16," with the help of Nancy Lieberman, a professional basketball player who is her best friend, and Renee Richards, who helps her with her game.

"I'm trying to live up to what I can do, not take the easy way out," she said. "It takes more than just talent. I need somebody to kick me in the butt.

"Nancy says, 'You're not on the comeback trail any more. You've arrived. You can't use the excuse that you're doing better. You've got to do your best.' "

There are those who perceive Navratilova as a gifted athlete who tends to self-destruct on the court.

"I don't think so, not on purpose," she said. "I don't lose now because of bad calls or because I get mad. That's self-destructive. Now, I lose because I'm trying too hard. I'm too tight. I've worked so hard, if I lose, I figure, what a waste."

You want to know how hard she is working? Last Saturday, she had tickets to the playoff game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and her beloved Dallas Cowboys. "I didn't go," she said. She practiced, instead.