Tennis players have a funny way of retiring.

They play more tennis.

Virginia Wade has been gone from the women's professional circuit for four months now, since the Australian Open.

She hadn't played an official singles match until last night, when she defeated Laura DuPont, 6-1, 7-6 (7-3), to open the E.F. Hutton Champions Tennis Series at George Washington University's Smith Center.

In other matches, Roy Emerson defeated Ramanathan Krishnan, 6-1, 6-4, in a men's quarterfinal match. Ken Rosewall and Kerry Melville-Reid won a mixed doubles match over Fred Stolle and Valerie Ziegenfuss, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3.

But there were telltale signs that Wade hadn't strayed far from a tennis court: the tan from Florida, where she is a club's resident pro; the strong serves and accompanying rush to the net; the quick resolve to finish an opponent who had lingered too long.

"I've been playing all the time at the resort South Seas Plantation on Captiva Island , but it would be fun to play a few more of these," Wade said of women's seniors events.

This is one of the rare occasions on the seniors circuit that the women have joined the men. Wade, by far the biggest draw among the women, will play the winner of a match between Melville-Reid and Ziegenfuss in the women's final Sunday at 1 p.m.

Most of Wade's peers play little now. Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong have families and Billie Jean King plays sparingly, Wade said.

"It's a real shame all those players aren't around anymore," she said. "It seems we've all gone our separate ways. If all of us were still playing, we could put a women's seniors tour together."

In many ways, the lure at Smith Center this weekend is nostalgia.

"People come and go so quickly nowadays," Wade said of the regular tennis circuit. "I think we're more household names than some of them are. It's like the film stars of today. They come and go like mad."

Wade, 40, showed up and stayed. She won the U.S. Open in 1968 over King, the first of seven Grand Slam titles she earned.

She finally won her hometown tournament, Wimbledon, in 1977, in the event's 100th year, and didn't stop playing there until last summer, when she lost in the round of 32 on Centre Court to Pam Shriver.

Shriver, who lives in Lutherville, Md., was watching from the stands last night. She has known Wade for years and owns the tennis club DuPont manages.

"It was tough playing in front of my boss," DuPont said with a smile.

Wade broke DuPont's serve in the fourth and sixth games of the easy first set, but DuPont steadied her game and gave Wade a test in the second set.

DuPont, who reached No. 9 in the world in 1977 and holds the U.S. Open senior singles and doubles titles, had two set points in the second set.

Wade fought back from a 5-3 deficit to tie the set at 6-6, then breezed through the tie breaker after a 4-0 start.

"Virginia still loves the competition," said Shriver. "She's still a big name."

Also, it certainly didn't hurt Wade that DuPont hadn't played competitively since the U.S. Open in September.

"This is different from the deadly serious matches," said Shriver. "There isn't as much on the line, so they're not throwing tantrums. This is pure tennis, although, obviously, they're not close to their prime. But it's still fun."

A sparse crowd attended on the first of the tournament's four days.

"You see people of all ages," said Shriver, who finished second in the Slims tournament here in January, "but obviously not as many people of all ages as in the Virginia Slims."