Women hoping to become the future stars of tennis have gathered in Washington this week to compete in the United States Tennis Association (USTA) Pro Circuit event.  The "starter circuit" event is being jointly held with the men's Legg-Mason ATP Tour tournament.

The U.S. Tennis Association calls its Pro Circuit "the pathway to the U.S. Open and tour level competition for aspiring tennis players."  In some cases, the players are young and making their first try at entering the pro tennis ranks.  They gain experience and try to improve their rankings enough to qualify for or get wild card invitations to play in WTA or ATP Tour events.

But USTA Pro Circuit Tournament Director Dan Laufer told VOA Sports the Pro Circuit is home to more than just rookie players, and the quality of tennis is high.

"The level is actually not so dissimilar to the WTA Tour," said Mr. Laufer.  "Actually, sometimes it's a matter of players just getting started on the circuit, sometimes it's a matter of players who are recovering from an injury.  It's very much like AAA [minor league] baseball in that sense."

Laufer says tennis is growing around the world and the makeup of the Pro Circuit reflects that.  More than 1,100 men and women from 79 countries competed on the USTA Pro Tour last year.

"They come from all over.  If you look at the draw you see a lot of players from Russia, a lot of Americans.  You know, players from Japan, China, everywhere," he explained.

One of the players from Asia is 20-year-old Tangphong Montinee of Thailand, who has been playing on the Pro Circuit for two years.  She has a sponsor who pays her tour expenses and she says she does a lot of traveling.

"Actually I play a lot," she said.  "A lot of tour [matches], because it is far from my home.  And then when I am out of my home I have to play like sometimes three months, or more."

When she first started playing, Montinee was ranked 587th.  Now ranked 280th in the world, she has made a lot of progress on the circuit, but the Thai player is still aiming higher.

"I would like to be top-50 if I can do it," she said.  "I try my best.  [To play in a] Grand Slam is my goal too."

Maria Sharapova of Russia
It is a more realistic goal than you might think.  World number-one Lindsay Davenport of the United States and top-10 players Maria Sharapova of Russia and Belgian Justine Henin-Hardenne are among the Grand Slam winning women who once played on the USTA Pro Circuit.  So did Americans Andy Roddick and Andre Agassi.  But Montinee knows she will have to continue improving if she hopes to be successful on the WTA Tour.

"The players are more tough," she added.  "I think everybody tries to win, tries to make themselves get ready for matches more than the Pro Tour."

One of the reasons might be the higher pay scale on the WTA Tour.  Many of the tournaments offer $100,00 to $200,000 in total prize money, though that amount can jump to almost $6 million for some Grand Slam events.  But this week's Pro Circuit event is offering a total of just $75,000.

One of the younger players at the Legg Mason event is American Julia Cohen, 16, of Philadelphia.  Her parents foot the bill for her expenses as she follows her dream of becoming a top player.

"I have played juniors for the last three years and was seventh in the world in juniors.  And now I am trying to start playing more Pro events and I am ranked 400th right now," she noted.

Julia Cohen has already had some success and has had to turn down thousands of dollars in prize money to keep her amateur status.  She is confident she has the talent to be successful on the WTA Tour in a couple of years.  But as you watch the young players on the courts at the Legg-Mason tournament, you know she has a lot of competition.