On the last day of the recent 11-week Virginia Slims women's tennis circuit, the players presented their second annual "Tribute to the Tour" cabaret. It was a Sunday evening in Philadelphia, so what else was there to do?

Betty Stove played the role of the "Virginia Slims Girl." Her costume: a Teddy Tinling spangled tennis dress, two fur coats (Chris Evert's fulllength fox, with a fitch jacket over it), Gucci shoes, enough gold necklaces and diamond bracelets to stock Tiffany's front window, and an ice pack on the right knee.

She carried a tennis-racket, a backgammon board, a matched set of designer luggage, a blow dryer, a cassette tape player and three dogs on a leash.

"In short," said promotional director Jeanie Brinkman, "everything that is most symbolic of the circuit."

Well, not quite everything.

While it was easy to symbolize the affluence of the tour, the physicality, the diversions that fill huge chunks of idle time, it is not so simple to depict the intangibles that are as much the essence of this life-style: bluesy nights alone with the TV and a room-service meal, massive insecurity, the occasional head-on collisions between highly competitive human molecules, stir craziness amid liberation, and an overwhelming sense of transience.

The public sees the glory and glitter of the tour -- the big paychecks, cast parties and limelight. But back-stage, there is hard work, tedium, anxiety and comradeship that falls short of camaraderie. Life on the tour magnifies both hope and despair. And there is the inescapable realization that the players' common bond is also the wrench between them: all want what only a few can have.

"People who play tennis as a past-time think there could be nothing more fun or more glamorous than traveling around playing tennis for a living," says Brinkman, who has lived the tour for three years without ever revealing her backhand. "But for the professionals, it is a business. It is not a release from tension. It is the tension."

Like barnstorming with a circus troupe, the tour is an unusual way of life -- enriching, but not without wear and tear on the psyche and the soul.

"In a lot of cities, all you see are the arena and your hotel," notes Julie Heldman, 31, one of the tour pioneers who has retired to write and do TV commentary.

"You play at ungodly hours. Your life revolves around the tournament. You plan your meals and schedule around matches. You practice, play your match, wait around until someone else finishes theirs, and go to the hotel. You live, in effect, the life of a traveling musician: gigging.

"It is a toughening process as you learn to get along on your own. You make your own travel plans, arrange your practice courts and partners.You learn to have a public image and a private self, to get along with glad-handers, to keep your temper when you feel like exploding all over everybody."

For those who have the ambition and competitiveness bubbling within, there is the compulsion to try . . . and to keep trying until they reach whatever level passes for success, or until the ugly slag heap of failure grows so large that self-deception is no longer possible.

"It's like any other type of life that's off the beaten path. If it's in your system, the only way to get it out is to do it," says Kristien Shaw, 25, who once wanted to be No. 1 but is now content to do her best and make as much money as she can for a couple of years before settling down with her husband, Rick, a marketing executive for Faberge in New York.

As Kristien Kemmer, she was voted the most improved player on the Slims circuit in 1973, but slumped badly and nearly quit tennis altogether after being married in November, 1974. "In many ways, it's an easier life, emotionally, for a married woman than a single, but the most difficult is the transitional period when you're starting married life and want your husband with you all the time," she says.

She is again playing well enough to have reached the final playoff for the top eight Slimmies in New York the last week in March, and is secure in the knowledge that a more conventional life awaits when she retires.

In the meantime, Shaw persists in an existence that admittedly makes her high-strung.

"I wish people would understand," she says, "that when we do negative things -- whether it's yelling at lines-people, or being rude about signing autographs before a match, or not having enough time for everyone --it's basically because we're normal people who are striving to do something, and we don't know until we go through the process if we can achieve it, and we get very nervous, uptight, and release these anxieties in ways we sometimes later regret."

"The least enjoyable part of the tour is that you do the same thing every day for three months," says Mima Jausovec, a bright, 20-year-old Yugoslav who has played Slims tournaments for three years.

"Off the court, it is difficult to have close friends. Unless you know somebody in a city, usually you don't do anything. The best is to go maybe to a nice restaurant or a movie. Otherwise, you sit in the hotel.

"If you are winning, it is O.K. But if you are not playing well, it is very hard."

"I think it is the same in acting, modeling, sports, any career where the image is much glossier than the reality," says Shaw.

"The sameness of the tour used to drive me bananas," says Julie Heldman, the witty, vivacious Stanford grad who tends to monopolize conversations with a mixture of solid stuff and junk reminiscent of her tennis.

"Some of the girls are very heavy into the 'soaps' on TV. Some are into movies. Last year, the national pastime was backgammon; this year, it's a game called 'Mastermind.' A lot of the younger girls read Hollywood romances. Mysteries and pulp are very big. There's almost no political activity, tennis or otherwise, because taking a stand requires effort.There are very few readers of serious books on the tour."

Virginia Wade, 31, a graduate in math and physics from Sussex University in England and a lady of cultured tastes, said that life on the tour tends to have its limitations.

"Often you can't do what you'd like to do in strange places, especially since many of them are not the most exciting places," she says.

"The least enjoyable aspects are living out of a suitcase and having time you can't use constructively. But obviously it's worth it or we wouldn't be here. The most enjoyable part is the purpose of the whole thing -- to play and get as much personal satisfaction as possible out of the actual tennis and your own involvement."

The intellectuals and Renaissance women of the tour are, for the most part, older. Wade, for example. Heldman. Betty Stove, 31, president of the Women's Tennis Association (WTA), who speaks and reads weighty novels in four languages, listens to pop music on the radio but saves her casette player for Beethoven and Brahms. Julie Anthony, 29, who periodically drops off the circuit and slips back to UCLA, where she is completing her doctoral dissertation in clinical psychology.

The average age of the players on tour is dropping, and the new breed is more singleminded about tennis. Billie Jean King calls Chris Evert "the first-generation true professional."

The champions carry their commitment to a level the mediocre masses can barely comprehend.

"What irritates me is that most of the women don't work nearly as hard as they think they do," says BJK, who has low levels of tolerance for laziness and might-have-beens. "They don't get totally involved in the sport. They should read history books, know every old player, understand why tennis is where it is today. They should have a sense of history."

King, who did more than anyone else to build the pro tour that gives women the opportunity to make a living as tennis artists, says she has wearied of the life-style.

"I don't like dead time," she says. "Before, we were working to build the circuit and start the WTA, so I was busy doing something all the time. Now I get antsy.

"The system now is what I wanted it to be when I was a youngster. If I was 18, I'd think it's the greatest. I would be happy to be at the courts all day. But that's not where my life and my mind are anymore."

Still, King has come back. She underwent her third knee operation in November, and three weeks ago she began playing tournament singles again.

The art is in her blood. "I still love tennis, the thrill of making a great shot," she says. "I love entertaining, the feel of the crowd responding."

Ego is an essential ingredient, but manifests itself in different ways. King and Evert are very different leading ladies.

"Billie Jean was a magnet, attracting and repelling with strong force," says Brinkman. "The tour used to fluctuate with her. If Billie was on a rampage, tension was high. If she was happy, everyone was.

"It was never tranquil with Billie around, but it took her personality to make the sport. She made women's tennis, and she didn't do it by being docile.

"No one dominates like that anymore. On the court, yes. Chris dominates. But in the locker room, she's just one of the girls. She works hard at not being a prima donna."

"They've had different tasks," says Shaw, who has been close to both. "Chrissie doesn't like to be an outspoken leader, and Billie Jean always has been one. She has been able to take challenges head-on and likes conflicts. Chrissie avoids them.

"Billie Jean likes people to know she's in the room. She's always had that air, and that's one reason I broke away from her -- when you're with Billie Jean, you're always second. Chris is less conspicious."

King was in many ways a polarizing force, and her initial retirement coincided with a new era of good feelings on the tour. There are currently no political hassles to speak of, intramural or with the tennis establishment.

The tour is a living example of women's lib without substantial feminist rhetoric.

"These women are athletes, not crusaders," says Brinkman. "Their life-style speaks for them. They are liberated women. They don't have to break out of the kitchen. They aren't shackled by kids. They make more money than most men. They have nothing to scream about." There are no ideological battles being fought right now."

Like the tour itself, the players' cabaret is becoming more professional, painstakingly rehearsed and elaborately costumed.

Martina Navratilova and Rosemary Casals, in shocking pink tights and rose-and-yellow tutus, were ballerinas in "Swan Lake." Chris Evert, in Groucho Marx garb, played a director auditioning acts, a la "Chorus Line." "Virginia slims Kazoological Society Band of America" tooted its rendition, dedicated to players with nagging injuries, of "Ankles Away."

The kazoo band was formed in Minneapolis the fourth week of the season, when a chill factor of 86 degrees below zero discouraged nonessential ventures outside the hotel.

Rosie Casals -- who, despite her image as a strident, cranky libber, is probably the most popular woman on the tour -- bought 10 of the instruments to provide a diversion from watching snowflakes.

There is a sorority-like trendiness in the tour. Players, wittingly or not, imitate each other in the clothes they buy, books they read, music they play. Francoise Durr several years ago brought a pet dog, the racket-carrying airedale, "Topspin," on the circuit. Last year, no less than a dozen players toured with canine companions.

What makes this sorority different, however, is that the women form few truly close relationships. They are brought together by a common obsession and shared experiences on the road, but because they are competitors they are careful to keep their distance.

"The girls run in their own circles because they want to be with people who understand what they're doing," says Shaw. "But you don't open up that much to any one particular person because it's then going to be difficult to play her on the court. You reserve yourself and let very few people know you completely."

Evert and Navratilova were fast friends until Martina started beating Chris and became a threat. Then Evert resumed her old aloofness.

Many of the women on the tour speak of a kind of sexual claustrophobia because, for a number of reasons, there are few men around.

"It's not a natural society," says Heldman. "The male players bring their women on the tour, but the women don't bring their men. After awhile, you go bonkers."

"In our society, the traveling lifestyle is much rougher on women than men," says Brinkman. "Its acceptable for unescorted men to go into a bar or restaurant and socialize, but not for unescorted women. That's why room service is so popular on the tour. When the women do go out, it's usually in large groups. Otherwise, your basic traveling salesmen come up and make conversation, and it's never a comfortable situation."

The only men traveling regularly with their wives on the circuit the last couple of years have been Barry Court, husband of margaret; roger Cawley, husband of Evonne Goolagong, and Dick Butera, newlywed-husband of Julie Anthony.

Some women do date on the circuit, of course. Evert likes to, but since practically every match she plays is the evening feature, it is often difficult. Last year in Washington she dated Jack Ford in a publicity stunt, but they genuinely liked each other and have stayed in touch.

Evert is now dating actor Burt Reynolds. During a tournament in Los Angeles in February, she was a fixture on the set where he was filming "Semi-tough." He attended all of her matches in the Slims Finals in New York. Badgered by the press for details of their relationship, Evert said, "Write anything you want; I'm not saying a word."

One suspects that the number of pets on the women's tour, a unique phenomenon in the world of athletes on the road, represents a surrogate for dating as well as latent maternal instincts. "I'm not that well acquainted with all the dogs," says Shaw, "but I'm sure they serve as sympathetic ears."

There is some lesbianism on the circuit, but it is probably no more pronounced than homosexuality in society as a whole. It is a subject often hinted and snickered at by outsiders, but seldom discussed within the sorority.

What Grace Lichtenstein said in "A Long Way, Baby," her 1973 book about the tour, still applies: "Lesbianism was one particular subject that was off limits, even though a small percentage of the players were gay and the others knew which ones they were. When the matter was brought up, it was sometimes among straight girls who gossiped about the gays behind their backs."

As sexual mores change, the social life of the tour undoubtedly will, too.

"Even now, we're starting to get a few groupies," says Brinkman. "One showed up after a press conference for Chris Evert, said he was a reporter but was late because he had been in an auto accident. I felt sorry for him and set up a phone interview. It turned out that all he wanted was a date with her. She very politely hung up on him.

"It will be interesting. In five years.I wouldn't be surprised to find groups of boys at the locker room door, screaming for locks of hair."