For the many who think strawberries and cream at Wimbledon are tennis' top treat, consider sipping pastis for two weeks at Roland Garros Stadium in Paris.

The French Open is in progress, and this year its draw is as strong as Wimbledon's or Flushing Meadows'. All the major men and women players are present, except for Gene Mayer, who is injured, and a few other Americans, such as Steve Denton, who are fearful of Roland Garros' slow red clay.

Still, a strong group of Americans, led by John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and the recent Italian Open winner, Jimmy Arias, are hoping to bring the championship across the Atlantic for the first time since 1955.

On the women's side, Martina Navratilova, last year's winner, is the odds-on favorite and she showed convincing form today in beating Mary Lou Piatek in her first match. But no one is counting out second-seeded Chris Evert Lloyd, a four-time winner here.

The fact that most of the sport's top players have assembled here testifies to how much the French Open has grown to become a rival of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. If it still ranks a bit behind the other two events, it has left all the other European tournaments, such as the Italian Open, in the clay.

"There are definitely three biggies--Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and then the French," said Connors. "A lot of guys who love clay put the French above the other two. They set their entire schedule around it."

Even for grass and hard-court specialists, the French Open has become a required event.

"The tournament has grown so big that they know they have to come," said Philippe Chatrier, the tournament's president. "McEnroe, for example, knows that he can't shirk this tournament as he did last year. He needs to win here to reach the Olympia, to go down in tennis history as an immortal."

Only 10 years ago, this was not the case. Prize money was under $100,000 and the facilities inadequate for a major event.

But under the energetic leadership of Chatrier, the French Tennis Federation decided to upgrade the tournament. It was helped by the tennis boom here, which lured television.

The TV money was poured back into the tournament. Prize money zoomed, this year reaching about $1.35 million, not far behind Wimbledon.

The players seem to enjoy the event as much as the growing number of spectators. Evonne Goolagong Cawley, for example, last played here 10 years ago, but said that Roland Garros was the natural place for her to try and find the form that not long ago made her a champion.

"Everything has changed so much--for the better," she said. "I love the atmosphere here."

"This is without a doubt the best of the majors to play in," said Brian Gottfried. "Every little detail is taken care of, like making sure you don't have matches on consecutive days. I appreciate that."

Happy players make for good tennis and, above all, that is what makes Roland Garros special. Both the men's and women's draws list 128 players, making for a deep field. And for the men, each match is three of five sets.

The clay surface makes for long rallies, which favor steady, machine-like players such as last year's winner, Mats Wilander. Bjorn Borg was devastating here, winning four straight years.

Traditionally, the red clay has not been kind to the Americans, weaned on the serve-and-volley game. The last American to win here was Tony Trabert nearly 30 years ago.

"The Americans dread the red clay," said Chatrier. "But with the fast balls we use, an agressive player can win here. McEnroe can win if he's well-prepared and if he sets his mind on it."

Connors agrees. "You have to be patient here," he said. "But if I'm in the right frame of mind, I can play my game and win here. It's a challenge and I enjoy challenges."

Despite stiff austerity measures recently imposed by the government, almost 300,000 spectators are expected to come up with the money for the expensive tickets and attend.

They come to watch the tennis, of course. But also they come to be seen among the beautiful people wandering the grounds, and to enjoy one of the nicest places in the world to sip a pastis.