Andre Agassi made $175,000 just for appearing in a tournament in San Francisco earlier this year. When he won it, he made another $34,500. Supporters call this a contract, detractors call it a bribe. It is more commonly known as a guarantee and it is the most hotly debated issue in men's tennis, one that some say may threaten the competitive integrity of the Association of Tennis Professionals tour.

There are purists and there are realists and then there is the ATP, caught in a rhetorical windstorm. Some tournaments barred from paying guarantees by the ATP are doing so anyway, according to sources. And the ATP, which oversees the men's tour, itself has paid players to appear in events where its own rules forbid it, Chief Executive Officer Hamilton Jordan acknowledged.

"In a perfect world, there would be no guarantees in our sport," Jordan said. "But it isn't a perfect world."

Guarantees have long been an unspoken part of tennis. In 1983 Guillermo Vilas, then ranked No. 3, was suspended for a year when he was caught accepting $60,000 to play a tournament in Rotterdam.

The ATP has attempted to bring the practice aboveboard by permitting 54 of its 78 events to offer guarantees. The rational was that it would allow those smaller World Series tournaments to attract top stars they otherwise couldn't. The upper echelon Championship Series events, with larger purses and promised six of the top 10 players by the ATP, are forbidden to pay guarantees.

Critics charge the ATP has unwittingly erected a skewed system in which a player can collect an exhorbitant guarantee -- sources say top players command anywhere from $100,000 to $220,000 -- and lose in the first round without a drop in the rankings. Meanwhile, a player who wins the tournament may earn only a fraction of that. This is possible because of another controversial rule enacted by the ATP, the "Best 14" rule. The ATP decided that a player's ranking would be decided simply on the basis of his best 14 events, allowing him to discount ignominious losses.

"It begs for people to cheat," Arthur Ashe said.

A long-term effect may be the unraveling of the ATP's ability to enforce its rules. There is strong evidence that some Championship Series events are paying guarantees. "There are very few of them who won't pay if they see an opportunity or if things aren't going well," a source said.

Jordan acknowledged the ATP has heard reports of under-the-table payments and said the organization is investigating one case, although he would not name it.

"We probably have some tournaments that don't think we're serious about it," Jordan said. "If that's going on, it's a serious violation. Our rule is unequivocal: It's not allowed." 'Emergencies'

But the ATP's voice on the subject is potentially undermined by the fact that in four instances the ATP itself paid fees of $20,000 to $25,000 for players to appear in tournaments in which guarantees are not permitted: to Emilio Sanchez in Brussels, to Jay Berger and Andrei Chesnokov in Barcelona and to Carl-Uwe Steeb in Rome.

Jordan called these emergency situations, when sudden withdrawals or injuries left the fields shy of their promised quotas. He said the money came from the ATP's general budget and was paid only when a player was asked to play beyond his normal tournament commitments. Thus they are referred to politely as "designation fees" or "overtime payments" by ATP officials.

"At a couple of tournaments we had emergencies, so we have gone into the marketplace and gotten players," Jordan said. The ATP tour board has scheduled a meeting at Wimbledon to discuss many subjects, from guarantees to player commitments to the rankings.

Some view it as alarming that the ATP is compelled to pay players to shore up events. The long-term implication might be that players will ask for exhorbitant fees on a regular basis.

"You're talking about chaos," said one player agent. "The first time they pay a guy big money, and then they want to get {Ivan} Lendl, he's going to say, 'How much?' "

At the heart of the morass lies a familiar issue: player reliability. A chief reason guarantees exist is because players have a history of not honoring their commitments. John McEnroe, Lendl, Mats Wilander, Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg have played sparingly this season. Tournament directors and sponsors, burned time and again, seek to tie down unreliable stars with appearance money, aboveboard or not.

"It's the field of dreams," said television analyst Mary Carillo. "If you pay them, they will come."

No one disputes that the ATP has done much good since it seized control of a fragmented, highly politicized sport from the Men's Tennis Council last summer. The circuit now has slick marketing, a prestigious sponsor in IBM, a lucrative television package and a dramatic 84 percent increase in prize money.

But the issues of guarantees and player reliability crystalize the problems the ATP faces in the already roaring 1990s.

"The real test is going to come in those events that are putting up a load of money, where the sponsors are saying, 'We've got the money, we've got the TV, now the players damn well better show up,' " Ashe said. "That's where the ATP is going to make it or not, in trying to make sure the players fulfill their obligations. A lot of people are betting a lot of money they'll show." 'An Asterisk'

When a rash of upsets occurred in the first three ATP events in North America this year -- Edberg, Brad Gilbert and Michael Chang suffering early-round losses after accepting allowable guarantees -- the ATP suddenly found itself in a credibility crisis. No one accused Gilbert, Chang or Edberg of giving less than his best, but even supporters of guarantees do not dispute that upsets could fall under suspicion.

At a recent meeting of North American tournament directors at the ATP offices in Ponte Vedra, Fla., there was a consensus that upsets had lost some of their credibility, even though statistics show there are not an unusual number of them this season. Josh Ripple, director of the Sovran Bank Classic in Washington, fears there may be an impression among the public of a "crummy competitive spirit." The directors agreed adjustments in the Best 14 rule should be considered for next year.

But mere tinkering may not be enough for the most vocal purists. CBS analyst Tony Trabert, the 1954-55 French Open champion, said he has seen evidence of tanking and maintains the current system throws every match under suspicion.

"I personally think it's very dangerous," Trabert said. "If you know someone gets a guarantee and he loses early, they're automatically suspect. I also think it's wrong for a guy to lose and make more money than the guy who wins the tournament.

"I have seen players go in the tank just because they got a bad call. I've seen some of the very good players give you less than their best. . . . I'd just like the feeling that when I walk out of a stadium I've seen guys give it their best shot. That's not much to ask."

Trabert and Ashe would have all that guarantee money thrown into the purses instead, and make players earn it. Ashe argues that when a player receives a guarantee, the natural burdens of pressure in a tennis match shift. If a player knows he is going to earn $100,000 win or lose, and another player knows he gets $35,000 only if he wins, the circumstances are not equal.

"The crowd wants to see excellence, a struggle," he said. "Billie Jean King used to say, 'You don't get paid to play, you get paid to win.' Right now they're getting paid to play. That's wrong. Those wins and losses are tainted. They all have an asterisk next to them." 'Chance You Take'

Is there anything wrong in principle with extending a guarantee? Jordan thinks not. Tennis is a sport in which there is not much depth, and the demand of tournaments greatly exceeds the number of star players to go around. A marquee name can mean a vast increase in ticket sales and television revenue.

"Some of these guys have a tremendous marketability, and history has shown if certain guys don't play, people don't come to watch," said Jerry Solomon, president of Washington-based ProServ, a player representative firm. "I don't think it's unfair for a guy to be paid something so his name can be used in advertising and to make money for the tournament."

Bill Shelton of International Management Group, who represents Agassi, points out there are instances in which a player takes a guarantee and goes on to win, as his client did. A player may even feel more pressure to perform if he accepts a guarantee. But should that player suffer an upset, that's the nature of the proposition.

"It's the chance you take," Shelton said. "If in just one match this particular player is responsible for a difference in gate receipts, then I'd say it's good."

Even a tournament director, Tommy Buford of the Memphis Open, who extended $280,000 in fees to Chang, Edberg and Mikael Pernfors and then watched Chang and Edberg lose in early rounds, still defends guarantees.

"I've been in this for 12 years and I know what's going on," he said. "I know we had to start telling it like it is."

Quite apart from airing out hypocrisy, the ATP had pragmatic reasons for allowing guarantees. The appearance fee and Best 14 rules largely are protectionist measures, attempts to coax players into playing the tour rather than the numerous lucrative exhibitions and renegade events that compete with the tour. The thinking was that players would play more, thus providing stronger fields and allowing small tournaments to survive.

"I don't know how you get guys to play those events without guarantees," Jordan said.

But Ashe contends problems arise from the inconsistency of forbidding them in the upper-tier championship events. For one thing, it could cause players to favor the World Series events -- in which they are assured of money -- while undermining the quality of the supposedly more important upper-tier events. For another, he suggests that it only perpetuates a lesser hypocrisy.

"It's either morally incorrect or it isn't," Ashe said. 'Things Aren't Perfect'

The Sovran Bank Classic, a Championship Series event, illustrates the difficulties in securing a field without paying guarantees. Last year the tournament expected McEnroe and Jimmy Connors to head the field, but both pulled out three days before the event began.

"Last year if I expected 75,000 dollars in walk-up ticket sales, I lost 70,000 of it," Ripple said. " . . . History prior to the ATP has shown that players have tended to be unreliable. I sit here with my fingers and toes crossed that they're going to come."

Ripple said he never has paid a guarantee and has no firsthand knowledge of others who are paying them contrary to rules, but does not doubt the practice exists. He added that he had considered raising ticket prices, but after last year's experience he decided not to. He will not raise prices until he proves to the community that the field he promotes is the one that plays.

"I can say there are people involved with Championship Series events who have paid before," he said. "It's hard for leopards to change their spots. Until this system provides for reliable player commitments, it's going to be hard for people who have done it in the past to change."

Those tournament directors do not help their own cases in the long term by paying spiraling fees under the table, said Bob Briner, a founding director of the ATP and a ProServ executive. A better answer would be to band together and outlaw all guarantees, he suggested: "Someone has to look the top players in the eye. They ought to suck it up and just do it."

Jordan maintains the problems may be corrected by the marketplace itself, by media scrutiny and by peer pressure. He said it's also too early to make a fair assessment.

Most tennis figures, even Ashe and Trabert, agree the ATP has made valuable changes, and with some adjustments the tour can work. A rapprochement between disaffected players and ATP officials, a more equitable distribution of prize money vs. guarantees, and a remodeled rankings system would quiet much of the criticism.

"Toward the end of the year we'll take a look," Jordan said. "Is it working, are guys tanking? We'll look at all those things and make a decision. . . . Frankly, there's a general feeling that things are going reasonably well. We have some problems we anticipated and some we didn't. Things aren't perfect."

Regardless of what shape ATP rules take, it is not likely guarantees will go away. They always have been a part of tennis, and many other games. If they evoke such bitter dispute, it's because "a lot of people don't like to hear the truth," Shelton said. "The truth hurts."

............... LEADERS ................

........... THROUGH JUNE 17 ............

Rk. ... Player ................ Earnings

1. ... Andres Gomez .......... $687,274

2. ... Ivan Lendl ............ $655,957

3. ... Stefan Edberg ......... $533,543

4. ... Boris Becker .......... $488,646

5. ... Andre Agassi .......... $484,497

6. ... Emilio Sanchez ........ $484,355

7. ... Thomas Muster ......... $441,285

8. ... Goran Ivanisevic ...... $318,175

9. ... Andrei Chesnokov ...... $291,542

10. ... Jim Courier ........... $287,738

11. ... Brad Gilbert .......... $281,419

12. ... Jonas Svensson ........ $251,992

13. ... Petr Korda ............ $243,604

14. ... Pete Sampras .......... $242,770

15. ... Guy Forget ............ $228,533

16. ... Sergio Casal .......... $217,935