Although the final outcome says otherwise, it was not a lost weekend for U.S. tennis in Hartford.

A quick glance reveals that the United States suffered the humiliation of Davis Cup relegation -- elimination from the 1988 competition before the 1987 champion has been crowned. That was embarrassing and inexcusable. Losing, 3-2, to a West German team led by Boris Becker is nothing to be ashamed of, but the circumstances that created the need to play West Germany this weekend are depressing.

The villains of this piece are the U.S. Tennis Association in general and former USTA president Randy Gregson in specific. But more on that later.

First, the weekend. U.S. tennis reached a new low when Becker beat Tim Mayotte Sunday night in the decisive fifth match. For almost two years now, the sport once dominated by Americans, once ruled by Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, has been virtually owned by Europeans.

Now, the U.S. Davis Cup team, because it lost in the first round of this year's competition to Paraguay, and because it lost to the West Germans, has been removed from the 16-team world group for 1988. To get back into the world group for 1989, the U.S. team will have to win the American zone next year. That won't be easy because the likely opponent in the zone final is Argentina, another country relegated this year. The match will be held in Argentina. As evidenced by the outcome last March in Paraguay, and other similar disasters in the past, the United States doesn't have much luck on South American clay.

The future looks about as bleak as the present.

But not really. This past weekend also produced a triumphant return to Davis Cup play by McEnroe and a sense that, as long as the USTA leaves captain Tom Gorman alone, the United States will field the best team available in future matches. That has not been the case in the recent past.

"I certainly don't want to go and play in Bolivia or someplace like that," McEnroe said. "But if that's what we have to do to get out of the bush leagues, that's what we have to do. I'd like to feel like I'm a part of this team again. Davis Cup has always been special to me. When you put on this {U.S.A.} jacket, it's a different feeling than you get any other time. This sport is so individualistic now it's sickening. Being able to be part of a team is something I've always enjoyed."

For two years plus the match in Paraguay, McEnroe was not part of this team. That's where the USTA comes in.

Turn the clock back to December 1984. The U.S. team, with McEnroe and Connors playing singles, is in Sweden playing the Davis Cup final. The Americans lose the series, 4-1. Connors, whose wife is home in Florida about to have their second child, behaves poorly. One month later, Louisiana Pacific, the corporate sponsor for the U.S. Davis Cup team, writes a letter to Gregson and the USTA. Something must be done, says the corporation, about the misbehavior of U.S. team members. They want the players to sign a pledge sheet promising to behave before they will be allowed to represent the United States in Davis Cup play.

"The ironic thing about the letter," said Arthur Ashe, then the team captain, "is that McEnroe got blamed for what Connors had done. John didn't behave badly in Sweden. His tennis wasn't any good, but his behavior was fine."

McEnroe was indicted, and convicted, for past crimes. The USTA could have handled the situation by writing a polite letter back to Louisiana Pacific saying that, although it, too, was concerned with the way U.S. players comported themselves, it was not about to take orders from a corporation and it was not about to ask McEnroe, who had made himself available for every Davis Cup match played by the U.S. team for seven years, to sign a sheet saying he would be a good boy.

That is not what the USTA did. McEnroe, quite correctly, was furious. "I gave them seven years and this is the way they thank me," he said at the time.

McEnroe gave more than seven years. Single-handedly, during a period when players such as Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl and Connors were looking for any excuse to get out of playing Davis Cup, he kept interest in it alive.

Gregson, then the USTA president, made a grievous error by demanding McEnroe sign the good conduct pledge. Then he compounded it by ordering Gorman, who became captain in 1986, not to select McEnroe -- the silly pledge having been abandoned -- for all of that year. Very possibly, the United States would have won the Davis Cup last year if McEnroe had been part of the team that went to Australia for the semifinals. Instead, the team lost, then drew Paraguay to open the 1987 competition.

By this time, Gregson's two-year term as USTA president had been completed. His successor, Gordon Jorgensen, wanted McEnroe back on the team. But McEnroe was still angry, and because he had been designated for a tournament in Europe right after Paraguay, he did not go there. "If I had known what was going to happen," he said. "I would have gone."

So the Americans lost. Suddenly, the U.S. team was in the relegation round and, thanks to another upset, the opponent was West Germany. Gorman, who is so well-liked that even Connors considered playing for him, got McEnroe back on the team.

McEnroe clearly inspired his team and the U.S. crowd in Hartford. By his own admission, Davis Cup brings out the best and worst in McEnroe. The same can be said of tennis in general. The kind of passion produced by the players this weekend is wonderful. The jingoistic flag-waving that occurs almost everywhere in the world is a sad by-product. Becker was wrong to rip the American fans -- they are probably no worse and, in large part not as bad, as other crowds around the world. It was wrong to cheer his double faults. It would have been no different in West Germany.

Heroic as McEnroe was against Becker Friday, his presence was not quite enough, largely because poor Tim Mayotte cannot make the big shots in crucial matches.

But Mayotte is not to blame for the loss this weekend. None of the players are. The USTA is. Gregson said last year that McEnroe's past behavior made his presence on the U.S. team unacceptable to him. McEnroe, and his country, deserved better. The USTA owes tennis fans in this country one thing: the best possible representation in the Davis Cup. Every time out. For two years, it failed miserably in that task. The result is relegation. The United States is back on square one in the Davis Cup.

Maybe a lesson was learned. If so, it was certainly learned the hard way.