On the way to the top--and the way back--professional tennis players pass each other on the U.S. Tennis Association satellite circuit.
Last week they were in Richmond. Next week they'll be in Shreveport, La. For now, their road show has come to rest in Washington for the Michelob Light Masters Tournament at Rock Creek Tennis Stadium. There they will continue their quest to be ranked among the top 100 players in the world, at the same time honing their skills for the main attraction, the Grand Prix tour.
Twenty-year-old Ben Testerman is on his way to the top. The sixth seed in this week's tournament, he has won more junior titles (19) than any player ever. He is biding his time now, working on his world ranking, waiting for the right moment to enter a Grand Prix event.
"This is really going to help me in the long run," said Testerman, of Knoxville, Tenn., currently ranked 160th in the world. "From my perspective, I'm on the way up, but I still have to prove myself. And this is the place to do it."
Rick Fagel, 28, of Miami is trying to work his way back to the top. He's been close before, played in the big events, and even beaten the likes of John McEnroe, Adriano Panatta and Harold Solomon.
But Fagel had ankle surgery last October, and now he's back on the satellite circuit, playing for a couple hundred dollars a week and enough points to push him back into the top 100.
"It's easy to see the young guys who are going to make it," said Fagel, who is seeded fourth in this week's tournament. "They just have to keep playing here (on the circuit) until they break through and win a couple times.
"Then there's the guys like me who are coming off injuries and just trying to make it back there," Fagel said.
Between Testerman and Fagel on the world list are a lot of players, ranked from 200th to 300th, who are on the 25-week tour "just to enjoy the weather," said Fagel.
A tan is about all most players take away from the circuit. The average player earns between $100 and $200 a week in prize money. More valuable are computer ranking points. If a player can collect enough points (about 80) to crack the top 100, he can automatically qualify for a Grand Prix event, where the stakes are much higher.
To earn those points, players must finish and do well in one of the five segments of the satellite circuit. Each segment consists of four tournaments and a last "masters" event, which features the best 32 performers of the previous four weeks.
It's tennis without the frills, but good tennis nonetheless.