She is called "Rabbit" for the way she covers a tennis court. Very fast. Jumps high, too. Especially when someone tries to float a lob over her 5-foot-3 form.

If you want to know if 32-year-old Wendy Turnbull, the little old lady of professional tennis, can still play the game, ask Gigi Fernandez.

"It's tough to play the first match of the year against somebody like Wendy," said Fernandez, a 20-year-old with a great future but not much presence yesterday while she lost to Turnbull, 6-4, 6-1. "It just makes me realize I have to work harder, much harder."

The second day of the Virginia Slims tennis tournament at George Washington University's Smith Center nearly featured a second major upset when 15-year-old amateur Melissa Gurney, a wild-card qualifier in this $150,000 tournament, almost eliminated the fifth seed, Helena Sukova of Czechoslovakia.

Gurney, who looks like a skinny 13-year-old with braces on her teeth, was leading the 6-foot-1 Sukova by 3-1 in the third set. But Sukova broke service twice to win the match, 6-1, 4-6, 6-4.

"I just wanted to at least make it a good match," said Gurney, who is coached by Robert Lansdorp, Tracy Austin's coach.

Sukova is one of only two women who have beaten Martina Navratilova in the last 19 months. The other was Hana Mandlikova, the defending champion of this tournament who is seeded second.

Last night, Mandlikova defeated Marcella Mesker, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4). Mesker was up by 5-2 in the second set, when she began mis-hitting Mandlikova's serves into the net.

"I was a little bit lucky," said Mandlikova. "I put some good serves in and pulled it out."

Sabrina Goles, a 21-year-old who learned the game on a neighborhood court in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, outlasted Lisa Bonder, 4-6, 6-1, 7-6 (7-4), in the first match, which was like watching two slightly irregular metronomes at work.

"I knew she was scared of me," said Goles, who earned a spot here by playing in a qualifying tournament last weekend.

Debbie Spence, a 17-year-old with a blond ponytail and southern California cool, survived a scare from Raffaella Reggi of Italy, who gasped and shrugged and berated herself in two languages for losing control of the 3-6, 6-4, 6-4 match.

"My game is being steady," said Spence, who was down, 0-2, in the second set after losing the first. At that point, she stopped trying to hit winners and let Reggi self-destruct.

Elizabeth Smylie looked too good beating Pascale Paradis, 6-2, 6-2, to be ranked no higher than 40th in the world. Smylie used slams, slices and drop shots to confound her opponent.

Neither Smylie nor Paradis was afraid to charge the net, which endeared them to the small crowd that had seen seven matches dominated by base line play.

But Smylie was better at the serve-and-volley game. Paradis' big serve trailed smoke, but the 18-year-old had trouble putting it where the rules allowed.

Three Australians played singles matches today. Smylie and Turnbull advanced to the second round, but Anne Minter was eliminated, 6-2, 6-4, by Bonnie Gadusek.

The Turnbull-Fernandez match was the feature singles contest of the day. Fernandez, a 20-year-old from Puerto Rico, has been anointed as a future star by none other than Navratilova, who picked Fernandez to be her doubles partner at this tournament when Pam Shriver withdrew because of injury.

Last July, after watching Fernandez lose a match to Shriver at Wimbledon, 3-6, 6-3, 9-7, Navratilova sent her a note that read, "You'll be great if you'd just lose 20 pounds."

Fernandez lost 25 pounds and jumped in world ranking from 127 to 27. But yesterday, she was matched against one of the most durable stars on the circuit.

In 1977, Turnbull first cracked the top 10. She has stayed in that select company ever since, fending off all the young phenoms who have come with great promise and gone.

Ranked sixth in the world and seeded third in this tournament, Turnbull learned to play tennis against "cagey old people who knew how to use the lob."

As a result, she developed a fierce overhand smash to complement her foot speed and consistency.

Yesterday, Turnbull put 80 percent of her first serves in play and never double-faulted. Fernandez double-faulted seven times.

It was easy to see Fernandez's potential as well as her frustration at drawing Turnbull in the first round.

"When I first saw the draw, I was ticked off," said Fernandez. "But I had a few days to get over it."

In the first doubles contest of the tournament, Navritalova and Fernandez defeated a sister team from Australia, Anne and Elizabeth Minter, 6-7 (7-4), 6-3, 3-2. TUESDAY'S RESULTS

First round


Sabrina Goles, Yugoslavia, def. Lisa Bonder, Saline, Mich., 4-6, 6-1, 7-6 (7-4); Debbie Spence, Cerritos, Calif., def. Rafaella Reggi, Italy, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4; Elizabeth Smylie, Australia, def. Pascale Paradis, France, 6-2, 6-2; Bonnie Gadusek, Largo, Fla., def. Anne Minter, Australia, 6-2, 6-4.

Wendy Turnbull, Australia (3), def. Gigi Fernandez, Puerto Rico, 6-4, 6-1; Helena Sukova, Czechoslovakia (5), def. Melissa Gurney, Palos Verdes, Calif., 6-1, 4-6, 6-4; Hana Mandlikova, Czechoslovakia, def. Marcella Mesker, Holland, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4).


Martina Navratilova-Fernandez def. Anne Minter-Elizabeth Minter, 6-7 (7-4), 6-3, 6-2. TODAY'S SCHEDULE

10 a.m. -- Yvonne Vermaak, South Africa, vs. JoAnne Russell, Naples, Fla; followed by Kathy Jordan, King of Prussia, Pa., vs. Sharon Walsh, Novato, Calif.; Carling Bassett, Canada, vs. Mima Jausovec, Yugoslavia; Manuela Maleeva, Bulgaria, vs. Kim Shaefer, Alexandria; Jordan-Elizabeth Smylie vs. Claudia Monteiro-Vermaak.

6:30 p.m. -- Gabriela Sabatini, Argentina, vs. Camille Benjamin, Bakersfield, Calif.; followed by Navratilova, Fort Worth, vs. Eleni Rossides, Washington; Ann Henricksson, Mahtomedi, Minn.-Barbara Jordan, King of Prussia, Pa., vs. Kyle Copeland, Montclair, N.J.-Lori McNeil, Houston.