Martina Navratilova was moving at warp speed to her left when the shot arrived. It was behind her, just about heel high, a sure winner in anybody's court except Navratilova's.

Without changing gears, Navratilova whipped her racket behind her back and returned the ball to the feet of Carling Bassett. Bassett won the point with her next shot, but the smile on her face was more grimace than grin.

"I'm really glad I didn't lose those points," said Bassett, who survived another behind-the-back shot by Navratilova in her 6-1, 6-1 loss last night at the Virginia Slims tennis tournament at George Washington University's Smith Center. "It's bad enough to get beaten, but beating me behind her back would have been really bad."

There were few consolations for Bassett. Although ranked 10th in the world, last night she looked like the 17-year-old that she is in a match that lasted just 45 minutes.

Manuela Maleeva, the 17-year-old seeded fourth in this tournament, also advanced to the quarterfinals by beating Camille Benjamin, 6-1, 5-7, 6-1. Maleeva and Benjamin spent most of the game hitting from the base line. But occasionally each would change pace with a drop shot designed to die three feet beyond the net. By the end of the game, Maleeva looked ready for a blood transfusion.

"I felt pretty tired," said Maleeva, who is quiet and shy off the court and nearly morose while on it.

Maleeva will play her next match this morning against Kathy Jordan, who easily defeated Yvonne Vermaak, 6-1, 6-1.

"She didn't really give me a chance to hit anything," said Vermaak, who left her father's goat farm in South Africa in 1977 to follow the tour.

It was doubles day at the tournament yesterday morning as a pair of Twin Towers beat some Tiny Tots and two of Baltimore's best nearly upset Hana Mandlikova and Wendy Turnbull, the third- and fifth-ranked women in the world.

"I'm going to jump off a bridge," joked Baltimore's Elise Burgin, her eyes still red from a private cry after she and partner JoAnne Russell lost a 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (7-3) match to Mandlikova and Turnbull.

Twice Burgin and Russell, who escaped the oppressive beauty of Florida's west coast by moving to Baltimore last year, had chances to serve out the match. And each time, Turnbull, the Australian "rabbit" who seems to get faster every year, foiled them by popping impossibly accurate lob shots over the charging pair to force a tie breaker.

In the first doubles match of the day, Claudia Kohde-Kilsch and Helena Sukova, both 6 feet 1 and growing, tried to bully Zina Garrison and Kathy Rinaldi, who each stand about 5-5. Garrison and Rinaldi weathered the attack for two sets before losing to the top-seeded team, 7-5, 5-7, 6-2.

The doubles competition at tour stops is a poor stepsister to the singles play. At the Slims in Washington, for example, the winner of the singles title will get a check for $28,000. The winning doubles team will split just $11,000.

So why do players, especially rich ones, endure the aggravation?

"It's a lot of fun and it's not that big a deal if you lose," says Jordan who has won doubles titles at Wimbledon, the U.S., French and Australian opens. "When you play singles you can only blame yourself. In doubles, you can blame everything on your partner."

As a spectator sport, doubles has more than twice the action of a singles match. At times in yesterday's match between Russell/Burgin and Turnbull/Mandlikova, it looked like there were at least two balls in play.

"I'm much more aggressive in doubles than I am in singles," said Burgin, who has been teamed with Russell for 18 months. They are a good match. Each is extroverted and neither will blame the other for bad play.

"Even if I'm falling on my face, she doesn't look at me and say, 'Elise, you are the worst player I've ever played with. I'm finding a new partner,' " said Burgin, who calls Russell her "best friend."

That does happen in doubles. Billie Jean King is notorious for divorcing doubles partners, sometimes in the middle of a match.

"Most doubles partners are also friends. So when something goes wrong and the team dissolves, you feel like you've lost a friend," says Jordan. "It's not just a business relationship."

There are players on the tour who earn nearly all their winnings in doubles play. Anne White, a 23-year-old from Charleston, W.Va., is ranked 10th in the world in doubles but only 45th as a singles player. Jordan also was known primarily as a doubles player until last year. She and partner Anne Smith were voted "Team of the Year" in 1980. Last year, Smith retired unexpectedly and left Jordan without a partner.

"A lot of people figure you can just put two great players together and that is it," said Jordan. "But doubles is a different game."

This year, the doubles pot has been sweetened consierably by a $500,000 tournament to be held in March in Carlsbad, Calif. At George Washington University Smith Center Singles

Kathy Jordan, King of Prussia, Pa., def. Yvonne Vermaak, South Africa, 6-1, 6-1; Manuela Maleeva, Bulgaria, def. Camille Benjamin, Bakersfield, Calif., 6-1, 5-7, 6-1; Martina Navratilova, Fort Worth, def. Carling Bassett, Canada, 6-1, 6-1.

Doubles

Claudia Kohde-Kilsch-Helena Sukova def. Zina Garrison-Kathy Rinaldi, 7-5, 5-7, 6-2; Hana Mandlikova-Wendy Turnbull def. Elise Burgin-JoAnne Russell, 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (7-3); Martina Navratilova-Gigi Fernandez def. Bonnie Gadusek-Terry Phelps, 6-1, 6-1. Today's Schedule

Noon: Turnbull vs. Zina Garrison; Jordan vs Maleeva; Mandlikova vs. Kathy Rinaldi.

6:30 p.m.: Navratilova vs. Sukova; Mandlikova-Turnbull vs Bassett-Kim Shaefer; Kohde-Kilsch-Sukova vs. Benjamin-Pam Casale.