CLEVELAND (AP) _ A couple who are in the midst of divorce litigation are battling to determine rights to two frozen embryos, against the background of a ruling in a similar case in Tennessee.

The woman in the case wants them preserved so she can try to have children.

Joel F. Sacco, a Cuyahoga County Domestic Relations Court referee who is handling the case of Fred Wendel III and Mary Wendel, both of suburban Chagrin Falls, said a pretrial meeting Tuesday did not result in a settlement. A trial is scheduled Jan. 16.

''I have a feeling they are going to try and settle this case in private,'' Sacco said. ''The parties want to keep it a secret as much as possible.''

He said he was going to review the Tennessee decision last week involving similar circumstances, but said that case would serve only as background and would not affect his.

In Maryville, Tenn., Blount County Circuit Judge W. Dale Young awarded temporary custody of seven embryos to Mary Sue Davis, who wants them implanted in her so she can bear a child. He rejected the arguments of her estranged husband, Junior Lewis Davis, who sued for divorce and sought an order preventing implantation.

Davis, 31, vowed to appeal.

According to court documents, Wendel, 40, and Mrs. Wendel, 38, were married March 15, 1974. Mrs. Wendel filed for divorce on Jan. 26, 1989, alleging her husband, a Cleveland lawyer, was guilty of gross neglect of duty, extreme cruelty and adultery.

On Jan. 27, she was granted a restraining order keeping her husband, who moved out of their house Oct. 30, 1988, from entering it, removing its contents or removing either of their two dogs.

Wendel, who in a separate complaint alleges his wife was guilty of extreme cruelty and gross neglect of duty, was granted a restraining order keeping her from selling the home or its contents or using credit cards in his name.

On April 19 they agreed to temporary alimony in which he would pay the mortgage, utilities and insurance and pay her $1,200 a month.

The embryos, created by in-vitro fertilization and frozen, did not become an issue until July 11, when Mrs. Wendel sought a restraining order to keep her husband from disposing of them.

''Unless restrained, the Cleveland Clinic Foundation will permit the defendant husband to obtain or destroy said embryos defeating her last and only chance to have natural children during her lifetime,'' she said in an affidavit.

Wendel, in a court document, denied the allegations regarding the embryos.

Wendel, contacted at his home Thursday, said: ''I'm not sure everybody really understands everything about what is going on. I prefer to resolve it as much as possible in private. I don't want to make it public. I'll see whether there is a need to make a public comment at some future time, but I don't care to make a statement now.''

Mrs. Wendel, reached at her residence, said Thursday she would have no comment.