Faced with a Wimbledon without defending champion Bjorn Borg and possibly second-ranked Ivan Lendl, men's professional tennis begins its season of spring and summer showcase events in a state of chaos.

The era of open tennis began in 1968 and was supposed to end the anarchy that had characterized the sport for so many years. But after several years of relative peace, the sport is haunted once again by charges of illegal under-the-table money, a battle between two competing circuits and the very best players avoiding the very best tournaments.

* Last week, The Washington Post learned from a highly placed tennis source that Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors and Vitas Gerulaitis have been offered appearance fees ranging from $100,000 to $125,000 by at least seven Grand Prix tournaments. Such fees are prohibited under Grand Prix rules.

* The Grand Prix and World Championship Tennis tournaments are scheduled head-to-head nearly every week. The competition has created a financial bonanza for players, enabling them to go almost anywhere they choose. It also has led to a spirited tug-of-war to attract top players.

Last Thursday, for example, the Association of Tennis Professionals voted to suspend Lendl from its membership after he withdrew from the World Team Cup in Duesseldorf, Germany, to play instead in a WCT event. Lendl faces a $10,000 fine and an indefinite suspension.

The WCT, in turn, defended Lendl's action, stating that he was only fulfilling a prior commitment to its tournament, and that 11 other players had agreed to be there, but had then decided to play in the World Team Cup.

* Borg has said he will bypass Wimbledon, the sport's most prestigious event. He says his decision not to play the 10 tournaments required by the Men's International Professional Tennis Council (MIPTC) forces him to qualify for each tournament he enters, including Wimbledon.

But Borg, who has won Wimbledon five times, does not want to play a qualifying round. Calling the Grand Prix rules "stupid" last month, he said he would not play there this year.

* Lendl, the world's second-ranked player, says he's not sure whether he will enter Wimbledon. He's complaining about lack of practice facilities there, and too little time between the French Open and Wimbledon.

All this has put men's tennis in an unflattering light, distressing players and officials alike, despite the unprecedented amount of prize money--$25 million this year--available in player purses.

Harold Solomon, president of the ATP board of directors, said he was so frustrated several weeks ago that he gave the MIPTC "an ultimatum." He asked the MIPTC to thoroughly investigate the rumors of fees and guarantees, and said if that situation is not satisfactorily resolved by year's end, the ATP will come out in favor of guarantees.

"Ninety percent of tournaments give guarantees," said Solomon, ranked No. 58 on the ATP computer. "It's widespread in Europe and getting worse here in America, too. We (ATP) recommended getting an ex-FBI agent to investigate it, but that's never happened. Maybe a clarification of what is or isn't a guarantee or appearance fee would help."

The area of payment in addition to prize money is a hazy one. The most basic interpretation of the rules is that "players cannot be paid to play as a condition of entry," according to Marshall Happer, MIPTC administrator. But the situation is seldom that basic.

"If you ask 20 tennis players what a guarantee is, you'll get 15 different answers," said Butch Buchholz, executive director of the ATP. "There are probably guys who turn down legitimate things (offers) that they think are guarantees."

Happer said his group is not against players making money through professional endorsements and appearances, but, "if players are paid just to play, are we going to be like professional wrestling?"

Happer said the difficulty with investigating alleged payment fees is lack of hard evidence. "We will investigate at every opportunity, but we won't remove a tournament from the Grand Prix or ruin a player's career because of a rumor," he said. Happer indicated that at least one tournament is under investigation, but declined to identify it.

Solomon said the ATP has discussed the possibility of "planting" some young players in an effort to produce evidence of fee and guarantee offers.

"If you're a top 10 or 20 (ranked) guy and you're getting $10,000 or $30,000 a week in guarantees, why would you turn yourself in?" he asked. "Tournament directors feel if they can get some big guy in a tournament, it's justified."

Solomon said that if the appearance fee/guarantee situation were legalized, "it would eventually kill itself off. If every player in the game got guarantees, people would realize just what a cancer it is, and it would die out very quickly."

However, Happer said, "If you decide to permit such fees and have to buy the field, you'd have to drop the prize money to about $50,000 per tournament. And I think Harold (Solomon) also wants to keep the high prize money."

Donald Dell, the Washington-based lawyer and manager for a number of top players, said, "There are really two different problems here. First it's what actually is a guarantee, which is not the major issue. There are guarantees being paid because the MIPTC and the ATP and the other groups have not chosen to enforce the rule on a worldwide basis.

"How about the tournament director in America who obeys the rule and the one in Europe who doesn't?"

Dell said if all the groups in tennis--including players, tournament directors and promoters--agreed to do away with fees, the problem wouldn't exist.

"But of all those elements, suppose one or two groups might not want to agree?" he said. "Enforcing it is hard to do, because of so many factors."

In addition to representing players, Dell promotes tournaments, raising questions about conflict of interest.

For example, Dell was cochairman of the Washington Star International tournament for 10 years, and also represented Arthur Ashe, who supported that event. Dell said he sees no conflict of interest in that particular situation.

"These days, lawyers or agents cannot control where players go," he said.

"It would be nice if player agents were just agents, but if we had a policy stating that they could not serve as consultants to tournaments, then in effect we'd be telling people with tournaments who they can and cannot hire," Happer said.

"If agents are involved in tournaments, they do tend to have an unfair advantage. They might represent 10 or 12 players. But you could debate forever if they can make those players show up or not."

Happer called the situation a tradeoff. "How many of these tournaments would exist at all if these guys didn't offer such services?" he said.

"Maybe five or six years ago, that would have been accurate," Dell said. "But now there are literally two or three good events every week."

The WCT calendar has added to the overload of tournaments. Getting top players for each event is impossible, leading to friction between the two circuits.

The WCT player agreement stipulates that those who play individual tournaments must also play championships if they qualify. Lendl signed that agreement last August, but in November he also promised to appear in the World Team Cup.

"He came to Forest Hills this week because he had a commitment he knew he should fulfill," said Rod Humphreys, chief operating officer of the WCT. "Legally we feel we've got first right to these players. The Grand Prix treats us like outlaws."

"Everybody says the Grand Prix's trying to hurt the WCT, but people forget, the WCT has been in and out of the established circuit three times," Dell said. "If they don't agree with the rules, they go off. There's continued chaos. Week to week, nobody knows what's going on."

Buchholz would like to see the two groups "compete in selling venues and tickets, but not in sabotaging each other. I thought the ATP could keep them apart. So far, the WCT has turned us down on every proposal."

Despite the sport's problems, Dell said, "If you look at the growth of tennis over the last 10 years, it's tremendous. Somebody has done something right."