When the $300,000 Avon Championships open at Madison Square Garden Wednesday, the apparent question will be: who will finish second?

Martina Navratilova, playing what she describes as the best tennis of her life, is heavily favored to win the tournament, which features a less-than-spectacular, eight-player field. Missing are Chris Evert Lloyd, Tracy Austin, Andrea Jaeger and Hana Mandlikova.

Should Navratilova win, she will surpass Evert as the sport's richest woman. Evert's bankroll is currently $3,691,352; Navratilova has earned $3,626,784.

Navratilova has won 24 straight matches and five titles on the winter circuit. She has dropped only two sets.

In the opener here, she will play 18-year-old Bettina Bunge, whose Women's Tennis Association computer ranking is 12th to Navratilova's second.

In the other first-round matches, Wendy Turnbull will play Kathy Jordan, Mima Jausovec will face Sylvia Hanika and Barbara Potter will play Anne Smith.

Collectively, they have played Navratilova 90 times, and have won nine. In Bunge's four faceoffs with the transplanted Czech, it's been Navratilova 4, Bunge nowhere.

Turnbull echoed the view of most women pros when she said of Navratilova, "She plays 12 months a year, on every kind of surface. She puts her reputation and ranking on the line more than anyone else in tennis. Based upon her record, she is the best player in the world right now."

Navratilova's current form is indeed powerful, which she credits in part to playing basketball nearly every day. At 25, she seems to have gotten over her personal problems, and is enjoying the new sensation of being a crowd favorite.

Of this tournament, she says, "Yes, it's very important, but obviously, it would mean more if Chris or Tracy were in it. But I'm here to win it regardless of who plays."

Evert played in two earlier winter events, then took the remainder of the season off.