Tennis players are the gooney birds of spring. While everyone else is strolling by the Tidal Basin or watching decolletage in outdoor cafes, tennis players are sitting around waiting. From the piney woods at the Palisades Park courts to the sunny asphalt in Anacostia, you'll find them queued up these days like hungry fans at a Rolling Stones concert.

"Excuse me," begins the mild-mannered man in bermudas and T-shirt. "But could you tell me how long you've been playing?"

He is peering through the chainlink fence at the Hardy School courts on Que Street NW. He has waited two long games and now pops the Big Question in his mildest-mannered voice.

The answer, delivered by the bejeweled woman in the expensive-looking Italian tennis dress, is stern and uncompromising. "We just got on five minutes ago."

The Clark Kent in tennis clothing has no Superman suit to bare, so he shrugs and drifts over to the grassy knoll where others are waiting. Tennis time, which is to say, sitting time, is here.

On sunny weekends recently, the air was alive with hundreds of yellow, fuchsia and -- vestigally -- white tennis balls floating like over-sized globs of pollen across the nets of town and country. The outdoor season is open, the courts are ready and players are everywhere.

The biggest question your basic tennis freak faces today is not which new racket to buy, shoes to resole, muscles to tone or partners to find, but -- of far greater moment -- which courts to play on.

The quest for an open court is like a search for the Holy Grail. But somehow, someday, somewhere, there is just the right tennis court.

In the Washington area, the offerings range from the twin public courts scattered throughout the District, to the large, posh, very expensive and nearly inaccessible fascilities of the Chevy Chase Club in Maryland. In between lie such spacious layouts as the 12 courts of Cabin John Regional Park near the Beltway, open-membership clubs such as Madeira School in McLean and in-city commercial clubs such as those offered at the Washington Hilton and Shoreham Hotels off Connecticut Avenue. And of course there are the mammoth tennis centers at 16th and Kennedy Streets and in East Potomac Park.

Here, for openers -- that's where the season is -- is one player's meandering in search of a free court.

First stop -- Rose Park playground at 26th and O Streets NW, in Georgetown. The three newly resurfaced courts are so concave a midget can see the opponent's baseline. It's hard to decide which show to watch -- the one on-court, involving players of varying abilities but unabashed bravado -- or the one on the park benches, of animated conversation, jeers and whistles coming from groupies, hangers-on and players dying to get on.

For some inexplicable reason, Rose Park is extremely popular. "It helps to be known here," explains a regular who also belongs to a private club. "It's really like a club. Everybody knows everybody else. The regulars help each other out, which can make it tough on an outsider."

If you don't have an afternoon to kill, head for the nearby Francis Recreation Center courts at 24th and N Streets NW. The 30-minute time-limit for singles makes for rapid turnover. You just have time to warm up your serve and you're yanked. The McDonald's of public courts.

Fortunately some places aren't as popular nor as crowded. One secret hideway is the Cathedral Heights courts located behind a promontory in McLean Gardens. The three newly constructed jewel-like courts are invisible to the world below on 39th Street NW. A lady who stumbled upon them one day thought they looked so good, they must be private. "Please don't tell anyone about them," she implores. Sorry, lady.

Court conditions often determine popularity. The nine rather dilapidated courts at Anacostia Park are practically deserted. "Mostly B-level players here," says a man whose tennis bag spills over with paraphernalia. "If you want good competition, go to Turkey Thicket."

Before Turkey comes the South Capitol Street courts. Two loners are furiously exchanging cross-court forehands before the rains come.

"Wish they'd put some bells on these skinny white lines," says one of them after a questionable call.

"Play here often?" I inquire between insults.

"Nah, the nets are too bad."

He's got a point.

At Turkey Thicket at 10th Street and Michigan Avenue NE, the players are segregated: smooth strokers take the courts with serviceable nets, while their less-talented counterparts cope with gaping holes in the nets and cracked surfaces.

Beware if someone tries to play king of the mountain. A part-time Turkey Thicket player explains: "Some of the guys here will camp out on a court for four or five hours. They just keep waving on their friends, and nobody lifts a finger to stop them."

Charles Darwin would've loved it.

Now don't get the wrong impression. It's not that hard to get on a court, and believe it or not, there is the occasonal rule. Send the D.C. Recreation Department a self-addressed stamped envelope, and you'll receive your free permit with a list of the rules and court locatons. The permit entitles you to bump players from other jurisdictions like Maryland and Virginia if there is a long wait, but few people bother to get one.

Yet times have changed. The tennis boom, if not officially over, has definitely "slowed down," according to one weekend player surveying the action at East Potomac Park.

"Five years ago I actually quit the game," he confesses, "it was so hard to get on a court. Friends of mine bought tennis sets and never took them out of the wrappers. Now I play in the outlying areas because it's easier to get on."

I want to find out if he's right, but I have a more immediate hankering to soil my Adidas on one of the 10 Har-Tru courts in my fields of vision. For $5.50 I endure a few bad bounces (in all fairness, the courts are heavily trafficked on the weekends so regular maintenance can be a problem). But it's sure nice to have a net with a center strap again.

Playing beyond the District line has a way of restoring faith in tennis sanity. In Montgomery County, at Cabin John Regional park, no permit is needed. Just sign in at the register and wait your turn for one of their nine, low-bounding, green-and-beige lighted courts. Remember to bring a stack of quarters for the machines if you intend to play at night (50 cents a half-hour), and be on the alert for the dangerously placed lighting poles on those wide shots.

At the Thomas Jefferson Recreation Center courts in Arlington County, bring a Frisbee and your quickest racket. You'll need the racket for the deceptively fast courts and you can always toss the Frisbee if you bet bored waiting for a court on the weekends.

There's an alternative to this pot-luck method of finding a court, short of building your own or heading for the hills. More-serious-than-weekend players can join any of the small private clubs located on college and prep school campuses in the area.

The amenities may be simple: Seven Lakold courts, with center straps, and a pro shop at the Cathedral Tennis Club off Wisconsin Avenue NW. But there is a Program. And a Director. He's the friendly tennis pro. He's someone to go to when the guy next to you takes off his shirt and starts yelling obscenities.

Parties, tournaments and competitive ladders make you feel like a bona fide clubber, but it's cheaper. Memberships come single or family and run from $225 to $400. You'll play alongside anywhere from 50 to 350 members on anywhere from four courts (St. John's School) off Military Road to 12 courts (at the Landon School). That is, if you can get in.

Some clubs close to Georgetown are so popular that waiting lists are a generation long. It can help to be well connected or in line for a post in the next administration's Cabinet.

The St. Alban's Club on Garfield Street NW (eight Har-Tru and two hard courts), where celebrated pro Allie Ritzenberg regularly cavorts with jet-setters and high ranking politicos, is a case in point. Ritzenberg maintains that, "none is granted special privileges at this club." But some people aren't exactly crazy about waiting 10 years.

Similar clubs in outlying areas are going begging. At Madeira School, Ritzenberg's son, Frank, laments, "Once they come out here they fall in love with the place." Who wouldn't love the horses and woods? But it's 15 minutes from Chain Bridge, and that's the rub.

To beat the long drives to the suburbs and the long lines at the public courts, there are a number of in-city clubs whose only requirement for membership is money. Typical of these are the Washington Hilton and Shoreham just off Connecticut Avenue, which convert their tennis facilities to commercial clubs for the summer season. For $400 per adult ($250 for under 18) plus $7 per hour, the Shoreham offers three well-tended Har-Tru courts hard by the bucolic lushness of Rock Creek Park. For a breezier, rooftop game, the Washington Hilton has three lighted courts. Membership costs $425, or $600 if you want to use the swimming pool as well.

Looking for stiff competition? There's none stiffer that at the Edgemoor Tennis and Swim Club in Bethesda. To become a member you must reside in the neighborhood, unless you get tapped by the tennis committee which has the "prerogative" to bring in one ringer a year. It can be a real treat watching some of the area champs tune up their games at this super-active club.

Now if you want to jump a step and join the real country club elite, you'd better have a couple of friends on the inside (one to propose you and one to second). Then if all goes well and you can scrounge together anywhere from $700 to $7,500 for the initiation fee, all you have to worry about is the monthly dues and gas money to and from the club. Join a bastion of tennis respectability like the Chevy Chase Club on Connecticut Avenue, and you, too, can sip tea on the patio overlooking the 18th green while white-clad players glide about on beautifully manicured Har-Tru courts.

At the Washington Golf and Country Club on Glebe Road in Virginia, they never lay down their rackets. This is an indoor-outdoor country club in continuous motion. If bad weather interferes, the members switch from outdoor to indoor and sometimes back again without batting a lash or missing an overhead. It's all in a day's play.

And then some people have all the luck. They play tennis in their back yard, and they don't even own a court. They live in condominium complexes like the Regency in McLean: Lift the phone and the clerk at the desk arranges a match with someone of similar ability. A tennis game only an elevator ride away, a pro shop and a pro to attend to you every need. Now, who said the golfers have it easy?