A road to Catholic University's tennis courts wasn't just hot yesterday. It was melting, like a snowy road beaten by the sun.

The tennis courts weren't much better. But tennis opened the competition of the U.S. Youth Games yesterday, and members of the 16 teams played singles and doubles matches from morning until late afternoon.

"We got here at 9 a.m., and we've been here all day either waiting to play or playing," Washington Coach Tony Conti said. "But that's what tennis is all about."

Especially at the Youth Games, where there are few pampered tennis stars. No ranked players are allowed to play in the games, and tennis -- as well as track and field and swimming -- is especially affected by the rule. "If they were ranked, they might just walk right through this thing," Conti says. "Some are not as good as others, but at least they have equal criteria."

So what Washington has left, for example, are players who don't treat tennis with a life-or-death attitude, and players who don't complain about things like the heat.

"You never really think about it," said Tanya Teller, 15, of Rockville High School. "You just play, and talk and have fun. You start to not mind the heat."

Teller sat on a bench underneath a couple of trees with teammate Bao-An Nguyen, 15, of Eleanor Roosevelt, and former teammate Anjanette McIlwain, 16, who won two gold and one silver medal last year, but is too old to play this year. They talked in a friendly manner while watching teammates Maria Restrepo, 15, of Holy Cross and DeJuan McIlwain of Oxon Hill beat a mixed doubles opponent from Philadelphia, 6-1, 6-1.

Though Restrepo and McIlwain sped through their match, tennis isn't Washington's best sport at the Youth Games. Teller speaks vengefully of a rivalry with Birmingham, often the top team in the Games, and of the added pressure there is when playing with Washington. "Everybody says well, you're from the nation's capital, and you're the host, so . . . " she said.

Conti, a fourth-year Youth Games coach who works for the District of Columbia Recreation Department, said Washington usually finishes behind Birmingham and New York. He credits the D.C. Futures Tournament, held in late June, for attracting quality players. The top four players in both tournament age groups (12-13 and 14-15) qualify for the team, but only two players in each age group are chosen for the Youth Games.

Conti said he loses about two players from the program a year to national rankings.

This year, he lost Patrick Osuna, 12, last year's gold medal singles player in the 12-13 age bracket, who went to play in the USTA-sanctioned National Clay Court tournament in Florida. By next year, Conti says, he'll be ranked fifth or sixth in the Mid-Atlantic region. "Once you get that taste, you want to play the tougher competition in the USTA tournaments," Conti said.

Conti said there are others who probably wish they could do the same. "I think most of them have a twinkling in the back of their mind that they can become the one to break through and get a scholarship to college," he said.

Nguyen is one. "I'd like to go to college," he said. "It would be pretty dumb to be a pro at 18 when you don't have any experience." But while he said the pro circuit "is like a dream right now," he said his enthusiasm may shrink in the future.

Conti would like to see more local youngsters dreaming the same thing. He said he specialized in football and baseball as a youngster, primarily because tennis had a reputation as a "sissy thing." Now, he said, the sport only needs better exposure to take off, and said the D.C. Futures Tournament and Youth Games are a starting point.

He also likes the idea of what the Youth Games provide for a youngster without the money to play in USTA tournaments. Participants get free travel, food, lodging and equipment that includes $60 tennis shoes.

The games run through Saturday at Gallaudet, Catholic University and Trinity College. Schedule of events -- Page D8