Three middle-aged tennis players were practicing Monday afternoon in George Washington University's Smith Center when a student happened by. "Who are they?" he asked.

"Well, that's Rod Laver over there in the red shirt."

The student looked, but didn't seem to recognize him.

"Have you heard of him?"

"No."

"He used to be the best player in the world."

There was a pause.

"What year was that?"

"1969."

"And who are the others?"

"Fred Stolle and Roy Emerson."

He hadn't heard of them either, but kept watching.

"They play nice tennis," he concluded.

Which, of course, was putting it mildly. Smooth as ever, the three players, here for the E.F. Hutton Masters Tennis Challenge that concludes tonight, and Ken Rosewall, who had skipped the practice, concede little to age. "Certainly you can't play the shots the way you used to," said Rosewall, "but every now and then they come off.

"We're still competitive," he added. "We're still a little disturbed if we don't play well. We don't jump off the deep end if we lose but . . .

"That's one of the things people sometimes can't understand, how you can travel and live with people, spend so much time with people, and get on the court and be so competitive."

If much of their audience is middle-aged -- "A lot of people find the nostalgia, coming to watch the players they've known for so many years," said Rosewall -- there are also many younger fans, he added, and they're growing in number. Indeed, at least a third of the opening-night crowd Monday was in its 20s or younger.

"At one time," said Laver, the only two-time men's Grand Slam winner, "you got out, you didn't make a fool of yourself, you didn't go over the hill. Now, it seems it's almost expected that you would keep going."

They do, with pleasure, appearing anything but foolish. "Several years ago you couldn't have expected to continue playing, and for some kind of money," said Rosewall. Sunday, when he won the Mutual Benefit Grand Masters tournament at Boca Raton, Fla, he won $40,000. Promoter Gary Kittay would not say how much he's paying the foursome for their three days here -- the event is not on the circuit -- but the payoffs are similar.

The headliners are clearly Laver and Rosewall, who began playing each other in 1963 and have lost count how many times. "We're still about even," said Rosewall, who is 50. Laver is 46. Each drew a big ovation Monday night when they played mixed doubles; each is a distinctive-looking crowd-pleaser.

Laver can't be missed with his red hair, prominent nose, freckled arms and legs -- and his still-overpowering left hand. His left arm remains markedly larger than his right. "I like to play well," says Laver, "and he," meaning Rosewall, "makes me play well."

The wiry Rosewall is 5 feet 7, 142 pounds, the playing weight of his prime. He is bushy-browed, with gray running through his black hair. He's tanned, and obviously in outstanding physical condition. "You're pushing it when you get to the mid-40s," says Laver, of the level of tennis they're playing, "but Ken is definitely an exception to the rule of fitness."

Laver-Rosewall meetings always have been a boon to tennis, none more so than the WCT final in May 1972 in Dallas. NBC pre-empted three prime-time programs to stay with the 3 hour 34-minute classic, which Rosewall won, 4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 6-7, 7-6. Neither can forget it. "It showed people how tennis could be played in a top championship match," said Rosewall. "For me to have been a part of that -- and I suppose I can look back on a lot of good things -- that's something I look on with a lot of satisfaction."

The brand of tennis they play today is low key, but they've retained the style and grace of their younger days. Rosewall said he would take part in about a half dozen tournaments on his current trip from Sydney, where he lives and operates two tennis facilities. In the fall, he said he'd return to play some more.

Laver, who lives in Southern California, said he played well toward the end of last season's tour, but "I have three months of rust to get out." He is so lean rust would appear to be the least of his worries.

"We feel very fortunate that our game is part of the expansion of interest in tennis," Rosewall said. As for Laver, he added, "For younger players today, Rod is ideal to look up to. He's a true champion, one of the best of all time."

That's how both were received by the crowd Monday night, and how they performed in the mixed doubles exhibition with two area girls. Laver teamed with 17-year-old Eleni Rossides, ranked No. 1 in the Middle Atlantic Tennis Association girls 18 and under, to beat Rosewall and 14-year-old Stacey Martin, MATA's No. 1 in girls 16 and under. One close-range volley between Laver and Rosewall brought a roar of approval from the audience.

But there were lighthearted moments one would expect of masters. Once, jokingly, Rosewall hit a second ball from his hand when he couldn't make a return. Everyone laughed, and Rosewall feigned innocence.

"Get it, get it, get it," Laver shouted to Rossides, doing the running for her side. More laughter.

Rossides confessed to being a little nervous but said Laver "helped me relax a little," and Rosewall did, too. "He was smiling," she said.

"It was like a dream. They're both really neat." She put her chin on the top of her racket and smiled at the thought of having played a match with such masters.