PASADENA, CALIF. -- It is early on a cool and windy fall morning, and tiny La Pintoresca park is quiet. The swings are empty. No one is climbing the steps of the slide or arriving at the bottom in a whoosh.

The park's tennis courts are only a few blocks south of Washington Junior High, where Jackie Robinson went to school. La Pintoresca's tennis courts lie silent now, but if they could talk, what a story they could tell.

One day, 64 years ago, a 15-year-old boy, destined to become the greatest tennis player of his time, walked onto these same courts, carrying a $10 racket his mother had bought him. A tall, skinny neighborhood kid, he also practiced on the public courts at Brookside Park near the Rose Bowl. This is where it all began, on these patches of concrete, and one must wonder what secrets he discovered there.

Nearly five decades later, British tennis legend Fred Perry could describe Ellsworth Vines only as "truly a meteoric flash across the sky of tennis."

But at La Pintoresca park, the only meteoric-looking flashes are swirls of graffiti. The park is largely forgotten and the most famous product of its tennis courts is mostly forgotten too.

It wasn't always that way. Before Pete Sampras of Rancho Palos Verdes came out of the Los Angeles area to win the U.S. Open at 19, there was Ellsworth Vines, who did the same thing at the same age 59 years earlier. Vines followed his 1931 U.S. Nationals victory by winning both Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals again in 1932.

Using a powerful serve, a crackling forehand and a volley with more angles than a geometry lesson, Vines succeeded Bill Tilden as America's greatest tennis player. Don Budge, who succeeded Vines, said he might have been the best of all time, anywhere.

"I'm a believer that things get better in time, but, today, I question whether the top player is as good as a Vines," Budge said. "Elly was always an idol of mine. He was the best hitter of a tennis ball I've ever seen. He hit the ball harder and better and closer to the line than anybody. When he was on, no one could beat him."

Vines distanced himself from tournament tennis in 1934. He turned pro, which meant he could no longer play any of the Grand Slam events because in those days they were for amateurs only. So Vines began touring the world, playing exhibitions against such players as Tilden, Budge and Perry. Vines became successful, owned the Beverly Hills Tennis Club with Perry, socialized with Hollywood's nightclub society, then gave it all up.

In 1940, the gap between Vines and tennis became a chasm. Vines, at 28, put down his racket and never hit another tennis ball in competition. He would play an occasional match for charity, but never to make money for himself.

Instead, Vines took up golf, played on the fledgling Professional Golfers' Association tour and would have earned a name for himself as the first Bo Jackson, if anybody had known about Bo Jackson in the 1940s.

Although he never won an event on the pro tour, Vines had 47 top-10 finishes, placed second six times and third nine times. Between 1940 and 1957 he played in 100 events and finished in the top 20 in 87 of them. He reached the semifinals of the 1951 PGA Championship at Oakmont Country Club, when it was match play, and lost to Walter Burkemo, who was beaten the next day by Sam Snead.

A few months later, Vines was gone. He quit the tour, became a teaching pro and held full-time jobs at several country clubs.

Vines's athletic career was one of the most schizophrenic in sports history. He was successful at amateur tennis and quit it. He was successful at pro tennis and quit it. He was successful at pro golf and quit it. But if Vines's career was unusual, it was also largely neglected.

"All the kids today don't know the name Ellsworth Vines, which is a surprise to me," said Budge, 75. "It's amazing to me. Lots of times, I'll say maybe the best player I ever saw was Ellsworth Vines, and people will say, 'Who's that?' Apparently, he didn't arrest the public."

Of Vines, Jack Kramer, 69, said simply: "He's been forgotten. But all of the people who were in the game before the Open era are sort of forgotten."

Kramer paused for a moment. Perhaps he was remembering, just for a second, how hard Vines could hit a serve. Or how fast Vines sent a forehand cross-court. Or the story that after Vines had played a clay-court match, they had to put down new lines because Vines had erased them with his shots.

At last, Kramer offered one more comment about Vines.

"He was the best."

Vines is a long way from playing tennis these days.

In 1988, Vines suffered a heart attack and subsequently had kidney failure. For three hours each Monday, Wednesday and Friday, he is hooked up to a dialysis machine.

It's not much fun, but Vines is well aware of how close he came to dying. "I was darn near out," he said.

Vines had checked himself into the hospital because he wasn't feeling well and moments later suffered a heart attack. He said he was lucky because his doctor was standing only a few feet away.

"What happened, there is a vein that goes to the heart and supplies the blood to your heart." Vines said. "They cleaned it out. To do that, they use a dye because they wanted to see where it was going. In one out of 10 or 15, the dye affects your kidneys. I happened to be one of those guys. The dye ruined my kidneys.

"I wanted to die. I had traveled all my life, played in sports and everything and I really didn't care anymore. . . . I have finally come to grips with it. You just lay there and let the machine do your work. Three hours later, it's all over."

A half a century ago, Vines was the machine, pounding foes unmercifully.

Budge: "Take a composite player. okay, who had the best serve? Vines. The best forehand? Vines. The best net game? Vines. Who hit the ball harder than anyone? Vines. He had four pluses in his game. You take today's player, they are lucky to have one plus."

Kramer: "He had really a great forehand. Who has the best forehand today? {Ivan} Lendl? I think Elly's forehand would make Lendl's become average. Great control, depth, but Ellsworth could make more placements and make good approach shots.

"Budge and Vines were the best two players of their day, and I don't think I've seen anyone who could beat them: Gonzales, Laver, Rosewall, Hoad, Borg, Connors, McEnroe, Lendl, Becker, Edberg. I think Vines -- and Budge -- would have cleaned up on anybody.

"Just take it from me, if Elly Vines and his game were playing this circuit, he would win more money than anybody else."