At 21 - an age when Jimmy Connors owned the tennis world - Randy Owens doesn't even own a local ranking.
"I really haven't shown a lot of good tennis the way a lot of players my age have," admits the Vienna, Va., resident, who makes his living working behind the desk at a tennis club for $3 an hour and picks up a few extra bucks stringing rackets and giving occasional lessons. "And I'm not really aiming for the top. There's no way I could ever become a world-class player."
What Owens - who didn't begin playing competitively until he was 18 - does own is a solid and improving game and a desire to find out just how good a tennis player he can be.
He began his search this week when he packed tent and rackets in his car and headed for Florida for a week of intensive practice before beginning play on the eight-tournament World Association of Tennis Champions (WATCH) circuit.
The WATCH circuit is to the Grand Prix what the Class B leagues are to major league baseball. The qualifying rounds for the WATCH circuit, which Owens will be playing in along with as many as 200 other young tennis hopefuls, are more like rookie leagues.
Tournaments on the WATCH circuit - one of five "satellite" circuits in the country running between five and 10 weeks long - are played in such Florida outposts as Ft. Myers, Longwood and Sunrise. Spectators may number 1,000 for a good match on a good day. Total prize money for each tournament is $5,000. Last year's leading WATCH circuit money winner made between $3,000 and $4,000 according to tour director Larry Turville.
Turville helped found the WATCH circuit five years ago, shortly after he graduated from Georgia Tech, where he was a tennis all-America.
"There were a group of up-and-coming young players who didn't have any tournaments to play in the winter," Turville recalled, "so we decided to start our own circuit." One of those up-and-coming players was Sherwood Steward, who now teams with Fred McNair IV, from Chevy Chase, to form one of the world's best doubles teams.
A couple of WATCH players are veterans long past their peak; others own world rankings, albeit low ones, but opt for a guaranteed place in the draw rather than face the uncertainly of trying to qualify for major tournaments week after week. Last year's circuit, for example, included 34-year-old Frank Froehling, runner-up at Forest Hills in 1963, and Tim Gullikson, who is ranked in the top 150 players in the world. One of the top names scheduled to play on this year's circuit is Howard Schoenfield, top-ranked U.S. junior player last year.
But the bulk of the players who come to the play the circuit from 25 different countries are, like Owens, unknown and unranked.
Success for these players has tangible rewards besides prize money.
If a player does well enough to finish fifth on the circuit, according to Turville, he earns eight points on the Association of Tennis Professionals computer rankings. That would be good enough to give him an ATP ranking of 200, which in turn would qualify a player to be admitted into the main draw of the WATCH tournaments or the qualifying rounds of major tournaments.
The intangible reward is the experience.
"We're a training ground for inexperienced players," Turville said. "Most of the players we get have played local tournaments and college matches but they haven't had the experience of real tournament competition. Sometimes they'll have to play two matches a day for three days in a row. It's like the gladiator thing: throw'em in the ring and see how they do. It's good comptition."
Owens - who dropped out of Northern Virginia Community College after completing one semester - has saved $1,000 over the last six months for the chance to face that competition.
"If I live in a tent and cook most of my food outside," he said, "my biggest expense should be putting gut in my rackets."
In addition, there is a one-time fee of $25 to be eligible to play the WATCH circuit and a $15 entrance fee for each of the eight qualfying tournaments. Should Owens make it through the qualifiers into the main draw, he would have to pay an additional $10 entrance fee.
Owens played his first "money tournament" this past summer: an invitational in Scranton, Pa., sponsored by a viewed as off the wall," he admitted. "But I want to play god tennis and I think I can get a lot of rich experience down there. I want to see whether I respond to the competition."
Owens said that realistically he doesn't expect to make it through the qualifiers into the main draws of the tournaments. But he confesses to local television station, with the less-then-novel total prize money figure of $1,976. Owens bowed out in the third round.
That showing wasn't good enough for a cut of the prize money, but it left him thirsting for more tournament competition.
"Going down to Florida can be dreaming of a streak where everything goes right for him and wrong for his o pponent . . . of his getting his first tournament check . . . of ATP points and a world ranking.
"If I were a great tennis player, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing," he said candidly. "But playing this circuit is the best I can do right now."