"Ping-Pong Diplomacy" seemed to work with the Chinese, so why not try tennis with the Soviets?

U.S. citizens can take a "Friendship Tennis Exchange Tour" of the Soviet Union to meet and play tennis with Soviet citizens.

"It's kind of a symbolic thing but at a lower level," said California tennis professional and author Alan Boltin, organizer of the tour. "They're trying to convey a message of better understanding through friendly competition."

Boltin spent two weeks talking to 44 officials in five Soviet cities last February to arrange what he calls "Russian Tennis Diplomacy," an effort that has received large input from Soviet officials but very little from their U.S. counterparts, according to Boltin.

Boltin has had no reason to speak with U.S. government officials because the tour does not involve professional or world-class athletes. Rather, it is set up to provide casual players an opportunity to exchange ideas with their Soviet counterparts, whom they will meet on the tennis court.

"Tennis is an individual sport. The nice thing about an individual sport is that you have to meet someone," said Boltin, who has coached Farrah Fawcett and John Denver.

Each of the 15-day tours, offered by Finnair airlines through El Camino Tours in San Diego, includes three opportunities for travelers to play matches with Soviets of similar skill in such cities as Minsk, Kiev, Moscow and Leningrad. The matches are followed by informal socializing, using interpreters.

Fourteen people have signed up for the first tour, which will depart Sept. 19. According to Shirley Bubel at El Camino, the tour costs $2,154 from Los Angeles and must have 20 people signed up in order to run.

Who would travel all the way to the Soviet Union for a tennis match?

Michael Reed, 39, who works at Coors Brewery in Denver, for one. He said he might even bring some Coors hats with him for publicity.

"I just figured it would be very interesting to go over there and exchange some ideas with them," said Reed. For him, the tour will be a great way to test his 25 years of playing experience and two years of high school Russian. "I just want to play some tennis and have some fun."

Few, if any, of the travelers are going simply for tennis. In fact, Vivian Archuleta, 36, from Norwalk, Calif., started playing only four months ago. "The only thing I was worried about was embarrassing my country for not playing so well," she said. "My racket may not always be in the right place but my heart is."

Boltin came up with the idea of tennis diplomacy two years ago when he made a number of proposals to Marat Gramov, the chairman of the State Committee for Physical Education and the head of the Olympic Committee in the Soviet Union. "The whole idea was to use sports as a forum, as an informal way to have interaction with the Russians," Boltin said.

But Boltin's early suggestions met with no positive response from the Soviets, particularly after they pulled out of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. In September, Boltin made a new attempt to forward his plan, this time with the help of Intourist, the government office for Soviet worldwide travel. The Soviets showed interest, and Boltin made plans to travel to the Soviet Union in the winter to complete the details.

"I was surprised at their fondness and admiration for American athletes," said Boltin, adding that the Soviets seem to be allocating a lot of money and energy to improve their facilities (they use an indoor artificial surface similar to the type Americans used 10-15 years ago).

"Because of a lack of courts (just five years ago), people couldn't play, but there was high demand. Now we've built up new courts," said Yuri Bagrov, the manager of Intourist in New York City. "We are very interested in this type of sport. People want to play."

Boltin is promoting the tour on talk shows in California as an opportunity to contribute to world peace. "I think the more interaction we have on all levels, the better chance we have at solving the nuclear crisis," Boltin said.