It's reminiscent of the circus. When the Virginia Slims tennis tournament hits town, it may not be via train carrying elephants, tigers, camels, human cannonballs and women who hang by their teeth, but a road show it definitely is. The women's tennis entourage includes: tour officials, publicists, coaches, parents, boyfriends, a clothes designer, a hair stylist, masseuses, racket-stringers and, of course, the players, most in pursuit of Martina Navratilova, who's here for the Virginia Slims of Washington, and Chris Evert Lloyd, who isn't. They're troupers all.

One of the best-known families under this Slims big top are the Maleevas, from Bulgaria: Manuela, 18, who has ranked as high as No. 3 in the world and currently is No. 7; Katerina, 16, who has joined the Slims tour this year; Magdalena, 10, who carries dolls with her tennis racket and may grow up to be as good as her sisters, and Yulia Berberian Maleeva, the mother-coach.

"My father, a watchmaker, decided at age 35 that tennis was the sport of the future," says Berberian Maleeva, sipping coffee. "And because America was his dream, he decided that if you wanted to go to America the first thing you learn is the language, the second thing you learn is tennis. He became a pretty good player for Bulgaria," and today he lives in Florida.

His daughter, Yulia, her husband, George, a college professor, and the three girls still live in Sofia. Yulia, under her father's tutelage, became Bulgaria's women's champion. Later, as a tennis coach, she'd park her two older daughters in baby carriages when she gave lessons. Then Manuela grew up to be one of the best in the world, with Katerina not far behind. Yesterday they played doubles together at George Washington University's Smith Center, losing to Elise Burgin and Kathy Jordan, 7-6 (7-4), 6-0.

"I think her biggest achievement," Berberian Maleeva said of Manuela, "is coming out of a non-tennis country like Bulgaria and representing a country that has very little tennis heritage, no tradition. I think this is her biggest victory."

But the six-month tour is not just riches and glamor, says Berberian Maleeva, it's "killing. So many airplanes, so many airports, so many irregular things. . . . (Last New Year's Day) I was all alone in the Chicago airport. Was it Chicago? Yes. Manuela was playing here. Or was it Oakland? I left her somewhere to join the middle one, who was playing in a smaller tournament. San Antonio, I believe. I said to myself, 'Is this my destiny, leaving one, joining the other, to be in the middle of nowhere, to be alone on January 1 when everybody's celebrating?' "

As a mother might say, she adds, "I'm always pretending (to the children) everything's fine.

"I never knew it was going to be our life. But this is how it happens. You never know what life is saving for you."

Jacob Neal is described by Slims publicists as "a new sensation in women's professional tennis." Jacob?

A small man in a red warmup suit, Jacob Neal doesn't play, of course -- he's the hair stylist to the stars. He's helped spice pro golfer Jan Stephenson's image, and trimmed Martina Navratilova's locks. At the Smith Center this week, he operates out of the women's locker room. He's just done Tina Mochizuki's hair. "I hope she wins her next match or I'm dead," he says.

"(Manuela) Maleeva's waiting," a woman tells him. "Her hair is wet and dripping."

Neal takes up his blow-dryer. Players' hair, he insists, can even affect their play. Their hair has to be right.

"If they look in the mirror and they see a terrific self-image, I think they can go out and be great. It gives them an extra edge of confidence."

In Navratilova's case, her game was perfectly fine even with her old hairdo, but Neal said her long hair "just didn't fit her personality. She secured her hair in a ponytail with an elastic, and four barrettes to secure the hair to the head. But now as she moves around the court, her hair is moving with her. It's no longer a liability, but an asset."

Neal trimmed Navratilova's hair to "just above the shoulder, and completely layered the entire head. We spiked out all the hair around her face, creating soft wisps. We got her to streak her hair, put more blond in it."

This, he said, was in 1983. And how did he gain her confidence? "At first, I was just styling hair and doing makeup. She asked advice on a permanent wave. I advised against it. So the very next day I cut her ponytail off, and the rest is history."

"Hey, are you a tennis player?"

A small girl and boy with pads and pencils approach a young girl in sweat clothes.

"Well, yeah," she replies.

They consider her.

"No, you're not," one says.

"Well, I was. I lost in the qualifying."

Melissa Gurney, 16, of Palos Verdes, Calif., a high school junior, turned pro only last summer. She had to win two qualifying matches at the McLean Racket Club to get into the Virginia Slims of Washington. She won the first, then met Tina Mochizuki. "If I had won that, I would have been in," said Gurney, eating a ham and cheese sandwich, with potato chips. She has long blond hair, perfect teeth and the hint of a tan . . . a golden California girl.

So, she's seeing the sights -- Bull Run, for one -- and some good tennis. She'll make the next tour stop, in Massachusetts, and try to play her way into the field. Then back to school, then Florida and Oklahoma. Last summer, she won a first-round match at Wimbledon, no less.

"It's really neat how they make it a big deal over there," she says. "Somebody said, 'Oh, she's a Yankee,' with this accent."

She'll be back there. She's got a whole tennis life ahead of her.

"I'm up there with what they call the big ones, but I'm not one of them," said Robin White, No. 32 in the world.

Hers is a fairly typical life on the tour: She won about $100,000 last year, had her moments, saw the world.

"It's a full-time job, not a vacation like most of my friends think," says White, 22. "When I tell them I'm going to Australia, they think it's the greatest."

Trying to qualify at almost every opportunity early in 1985, she ended up playing more than she should have and "after the first three months I was ready for retirement. It's so easy to get burned out."

This week, White opened against veteran Wendy Turnbull -- "When I saw my draw, I almost died." Turnbull won, 6-0, 6-3. "After the first set," says White, "I didn't know where I was."

White just wants to get her bearings, be steady. "I don't want to be one of those players, hit and miss, (ranked) up in the 20s and six months later you can't find them on the computer."

Same with Peanut Louie, from San Francisco. Her real name is Mareen. But she's 5 feet 5 and the last of five tennis-playing children. Hence, Peanut.

Eight years on tour. Won the Virginia Slims of Denver last year. Kept her ranking close to No. 20 all year. "I'd like to see if I can maintain this level . . . two good solid years of tennis," she says.

Like most, Louie, 25, occasionally draws Navratilova or Evert. She's not come "close enough to scare myself."

Few do. Navratilova is the star under this big top, because, says White, "she's the athlete she is," and, as Louie says, "she seems to have extra reach -- she's all over the court." Just about unbeatable.