-- Angela Haynes was too little, at 4, to hit tennis balls with her 6-year-old brother, Dontia. So she would follow him to Lynwood Park in Compton, Calif., and watch him hit with the best girl his age in the neighborhood. And what she remembers most about 6-year-old Serena Williams is that she hated to lose.
Sixteen years later and a world away from the crime-ridden streets of Compton, Haynes finally got a chance to play Serena herself. They met on the sacred sod of the All England club, where Haynes, now 20, made her Wimbledon debut Tuesday. And after knocking the two-time Wimbledon champion on her heels in the opening set, Haynes looked across the net and saw that same old Serena -- the one who hated losing more than anything.
After coming within two games of a disgrace -- being bounced in the first round of Wimbledon by the world's 104th-ranked player -- Williams transformed herself into an unstoppable machine, shredding Haynes with raw power and pace for the 6-7 (14-12), 6-4, 6-2 victory.
And Haynes, deservedly proud of having pushed her former neighbor so hard, was left to ponder what might have been. "If I won it, it could have changed my whole life," Haynes said. "You know, she's a champion."
With its wild shifts of momentum, the 2-hour 20-minute match revealed the maddening duality that marks Williams's play at this point in her career. At 23, she's capable of striking the ball with more well-placed fury than any other woman in the game. But she only seems to produce her best when her place atop the sport is challenged. And increasingly, Williams is avoiding the challenge altogether, skipping tournaments because of scheduling conflicts or nagging injuries.
Wimbledon marks Williams's first tournament in nearly two months. She arrived without having played a match on grass in a year. And after she squandered four set points in Tuesday's 65-minute first set, in which Haynes yanked her from one corner of the court to the other, it was clear Williams was neither fit enough nor mentally match-tough enough to advance far in the world's most prestigious tournament, which she won in 2002 and 2003.
Still, Williams's best -- even if it comes within a hair's breadth of coming too late -- is enough to subdue most opponents, particularly 20-year-olds who regard her with awe.
"I just didn't want to lose this match today," Williams said. "It just made me work a little bit harder."
There wasn't a vacant square inch in the stands when Williams and Haynes strode onto Showcourt No. 2 for their match. It was a tiny venue, for one, with just 2,192 seats and room for 770 to stand in an upper deck. And it was a peculiar setting. Defending Wimbledon champions are accorded the honor of opening play on Center Court. Show Court No. 1 is the next most prestigious venue. That leaves Court No. 2 the equivalent of Wimbledon's Off-Off Broadway. And that was where both Williams sisters were assigned Tuesday, despite the fact that they share four Wimbledon titles between them (Venus won in 2000-01). Among the superstitious, Court 2 is also regarded as "the graveyard of champions" because of all the greats who have suffered early-round losses there, Pete Sampras included.
But its ghosts didn't rattle Venus, who sailed past Eva Birnerova of Czechoslovakia, 6-2, 6-4, in 61 minutes. She returned later to watch Serena's match with their father.
Haynes's father was in the stands as well. Like Richard Williams, Fred Haynes taught his children tennis on the public courts of Compton. Each day when Haynes would arrive with his three children in tow, Williams would be on the courts already, firing balls at Venus and Serena. And when the Haynes family left in the evening, the Williamses would still be hitting.
When their daughters met Tuesday, it was Angela Haynes who looked as if she'd been putting in the longer hours. She came out slugging, sending notice that she wasn't intimidated by the former world No. 1. And she didn't back down in the first-set tiebreaker as Williams pulled out clutch shots -- an ace here, passing shot there -- to fend off three set points. When Haynes finally took the set, 14-12 in the tiebreaker, Williams slammed her racket on the court, breaking its frame, and was reprimanded with a warning.
After falling in the second set, Haynes broke back to pull even at four games each. With Haynes serving to go up 5-4, Williams hit a ball that was called out but overruled by the chair umpire. The point was replayed, and Williams won it with the help of a let cord. Momentum in hand, she never gave it back.
Asked afterward to explain how one public park could produce three Wimbledon contenders, Williams smiled and shook her head.
"It's an amazing story, it really is," Williams said. "I mean, who would have thought that three people from Compton are playing Wimbledon? I just think it boils down to she has a great father and a great mother who always pushed her, but at the right tempo. And I have a great mom and dad who always knew how to push us, even if we didn't want to be out there some days. You have to go out there. That's the only way to do it."