The first question people ask when the prospect of tennis camp comes up is why not take lessons from one of the top pros in Washington. After all, you can get about seven hours of private lessons for the same price as tennis camp without leaving the comfort of your own ZIP code. But local pros, even though they have a stake in home court instruction, agree that lessons often aren't intense enough to break the back of a lifetime of bad habits.

Lessons can always be canceled when things get too busy at the office, and practice sessions can be put off. Try finding someone who wants to hit you 100 backhands in a row; they don't build friends like that anymore. Aspiring tennis players are like seals learning how to balance a ball: They need constant practice, lots of feedback and an occasional round of applause, if not a wet mackerel.

Once you decide to take the plunge, you have a bewildering array of entities called tennis camps to choose from. I decided to eliminate all those that are resorts with strong tennis programs, deciding that they lack the boot camp aspect so important to kicking a bad backhand.

Be honest: If you had a choice between having tea in the grand lobby of the Boca Raton Hotel & Club or being put through your paces at the net under the late afternoon sun, what are the chances you would throw on the tennies and hotfoot it to Court 3? But what if your choice were between showing up for drills designed to nail down your overhead smash or going back to a cramped dormitory room and a can of Sprite from the vending machine down the hall? Well, what if the vending machine were broken?

Whether you settle on luxury or something more akin to summer camp, there are dozens of places around the country where you can better your backhand. Among those, like the Dennis Van der Meer clinic, that move to college campuses in the spring or early summer:

The Four Star Tennis Academy, which offers three-day weekend, four-day midweek and week-long programs for adults at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville in May and June every year (before the summer-long junior instructional program begins). Weekend sessions are $250 plus $30 a day for room and board in the university dorms; four-day midweek sessions cost the same. The week-long sessions cost $495 plus $30 a day room and board; they take place every year the first two weeks in June.

The camp is run by Mike Eikenberry, a former top player at the University of Virginia who was the Middle Atlantic Pro of the Year for 1984. (Many local pros, including Fred Drilling of the Drilling Tennis Shop and Gene Russo, head pro at the Fairfax Racquet Club, are on the board of Four Star and feed area junior players to the summer program.) Four Star, P.O. Box 790, McLean, Va. 22101, 893-4428.

Adidas Tennis Camp of California, with programs at Oberlin, for adults, and Williams, Dartmouth and Blair Academy in New Jersey, for juniors aged 9 through 17. Although the program has a fine reputation, it is not as well known to area pros since it is farther away. A short weekend at Oberlin costs $245, a long weekend $295. Adidas is particularly well-known for its junior programs. Adidas, 919 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Kenfield, Calif. 94904, (800) 227-2866.

If you want luxury along with your serve and volley drills and are willing to hop on a plane, the choices are nearly endless, among them:

John Gardiner's Tennis Ranch in Arizona. Allie Ritzenberg, the pro at St. Alban's, thinks this is the best of the lot. "I've sent a lot of people there and no one has ever said anything bad about it. Besides, going there is like eating on K Street every day, the food is so good." This step up from dorm food to duck in raspberry sauce can cost close to $2,000 (the per person rate begins at $1,375). Another clinic in Sedona, Ariz., offers three-day clinics; prices begin at $760 per person. John Gardiner's Tennis Ranch on Camelback, 5700 East McDonald Dr., Scottsdale, Ariz. 85253, (800) 245-2051; or John Gardiner's Enchantment, Boynton Canyon, Sedona, Ariz. 86336, (800) 826-4180.

Saddlebrook (now run by the widow of pro Harry Hopman), which has programs all year at the four-star resort in Tampa, starting at $846 per week. Shorter stays cost about $125 per day. The week-long program promises 25 hours of instruction and unlimited court time. Saddlebrook, 100 Saddlebrook Way, Tampa, Fla. 34249, (800) 237-7519.

The Tops'l Beach and Racquet Club, near Pensacola, Fla. One-time Wimbledon finalist Roscoe Tanner directs this club, with 12 courts and a variety of programs from intense to recreational. Tops'l Beach and Racquet Club, 5550 Highway 98, East Destin, Fla. 32541, 800-874-0464.

Nick Bollettieri's academy and clinics. Respected junior coach Nick Bollettieri has his main tennis academy in Bradenton, Fla., but also has a number of clinics around the country during the summer. His Florida camp also trains coaches. Tennis weekends are scheduled from September through May and cost $275 per person, double occupancy. Nick Bollettieri, 5500 34th St. W., Bradenton, Fla. 34210, (800) USA-NICK (800-872-6425).

Palmetto Dunes Resort. Rod Laver is the resident pro here, with 25 courts and a variety of programs at the 2,000-acre oceanfront club on Hilton Head Island. Palmetto Resort, P.O. Box 5606, Hilton Head Island, S.C. 29938, (800) 845-6130.