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US Open – Last & First Reflections

In 1977, the last US Open was contested at the venerable and very exclusive West Side Tennis Club located in Forest Hills, New York. The next year the tournament moved to a plot of land that was just a short automobile ride away.

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William “Slew” Hester Jr., the incoming United States Tennis Association President, spotted the enormous expanse of land on a flight into La Guardia Airport. It was actually just across the boardwalk from Shea Stadium, where the New York Mets played baseball and the Jets played football. The facility – the Singer Bowl/Louis Armstrong Stadium – was in disrepair. But, Hester, who was a bear of a man in size, with a charming Southern drawl that seemed like it was right out of the movies, had a captivating personality, and in truth was a visionary. A successful oil investment executive, and an outstanding tennis player, he managed to convince New York City officials that the stadium and surrounding land would be the ideal new home for the US Open.

 

Now called the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, the initial ten-million-dollar investment fostered by the cigar smoking libation loving Hester, (which was the reason that “Slew’s Place”, a cozy little bar, was part of the facility’s initial ambience), turned the site of the 1964 World’s Fair into a major tennis venue. In the last year at Forest Hills, 218,480 spectators were on hand. The first year at new facility, attendance jumped to 275,300. Proof positive that it was a good deal, all the way around.

Guillermo Vilas became the first Argentine to win the US Open in 1977. It was played on Har-Tru (clay) for the third consecutive year, after having been a grass court event since 1915. Vilas downed Jimmy Connors 2-6, 6-3,7-6, 6-0 in the trophy round. Chris Evert claimed her third consecutive singles title, overwhelming Wendy Turnbull of Australia, 7-6, 6-2. The doubles provided the last Forest Hills double-double.  Bob Hewitt and Frew McMillian of South Africa were the men’s champions. The women’s final was more noteworthy because Martina Navratilova and Betty Stöve of the Netherlands defeated  Renée Richards, who had to sue the USTA to get into the tournament, and her partner, Betty-Ann Stuart, 6–1, 7–6. McMillian and Stöve scored a “double” escaping with a three-set mixed win over Vitas Gerulaitis and Billie Jean King, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.

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The horseshoe stadium at Forest Hills, when grass was the surface, had enough space to hold three courts that were used alternately to save on surface wear. It seated 13,500 but was deemed too small for a tournament of the magnitude of the US Open. The Louis Armstrong Stadium had room for more than 20,000 spectators, and also had the Grandstand, a demi-bullring court attached on one side, that had room for 6,000 fans.

Looking back, there is a smorgasbord of recollections from the last year at Forest Hills and the first year at Flushing Meadow, (It didn’t become Meadows until the “s” mysteriously appeared after a number of years.), Corona Park in Queens, New York.

One of the highlights was standing in front of the Forest Hills clubhouse one afternoon, talking with Tony Trabert, the former tennis icon, and Pat Summerall, an ex-New York Giants football star, who were handling the television commentary for CBS. Dick Savitt, the 1951 Australian and Wimbledon winner, was there too, and so was his girlfriend at the time. Renée (French for “reborn”) Richards, who we had known until recently as Richard Raskind, approached. He was a highly successful ophthalmologist before transition surgery. Actually, it was what had made the chat memorable.

A top intercollegiate tennis player at Yale University and good enough to play Forest Hills, in her pre-surgery days, she sued the USTA and after Judge Ascione stated, “This person is now a female”, had her entry in the tournament accepted.  Richards moved from individual to individual, greeting each of us with “air” kisses. Savitt was at the end of the line and as she approached, he tried to ooze further away from the group. Richards, who is an adept conversationalist and a delight to chat with, picked up on Savitt’s “slip away” attempt. She walked up to him and gave him a solid kiss. Savitt looked as if he had had a heart attack.

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Michael Fishbach is another “last US Open at Forest Hills” remembrance. He was a journeyman, a player who earned a place in the game’s history when he debuted a double-strung racquet which allowed him to put excessive spin on his shots. Australian Barry Phillips-Moore was the first to use a racquet strung in this manner. The “spaghetti” strung racquet (as it was called) enabled Fishbach to upset Billy Martin and Stan Smith. He lost to John Feaver of Great Britain, who admitted that the ball coming off his opponent’s racquet looked like it was an egg.

John McEnroe, who had reached the Wimbledon semifinal as a qualifier earlier in the summer, plays a role in the lookback. At 18, he made his tournament debut. As did 14-year-old Tracy Austin. McEnroe’s third-round night match against Eddie Dibbs, the No. 9 seed, was filled with New York “action” (It must be remembered that these were the days and nights of “Son of Sam”). The contest was interrupted by a gunshot that was fired from outside the grounds. The bullet wounded a spectator. Being a Douglaston, New York native, the young McEnroe was inured to the “turmoil”. Dibbs, who was known as “Fast Eddie”, cared about nothing more than getting out of there alive. He still lives, but he lost to McEnroe.

Connors, one of the most crassly behaving individuals to ever play, was in “Jimbo Form” in the semifinals against Corrado Barazzutti. The Italian challenged a line call, but before the chair umpire could extricate himself from his seat to check where the ball had landed, Connors, being true to his competitive dysfunction, sprinted around the net, went to the mark and quickly erased it with his tennis shoe.

The move to the sixteen-acre Flushing Meadow location was like having been a college student living in a dorm room for years, then taking up residence in a large house. It was “freeing”. Having regularly covered the US Open at Forest Hills, the new site was spacious. Initially, it seemed that a map would be needed in order to keep from getting lost just walking around the grounds.

Size aside, mention of the 1978 US Open immediately brings about memories of the flooding that happened. There was so much rain that, at times, it seemed practical to visit the locker room on the lower level of the Louis Armstrong Stadium wearing scuba gear. Because of the just finished construction, the drainage system didn’t do its job. I recall walking into the area where the photographers had storage lockers and realizing that a huge amount of very expensive equipment had been damaged or destroyed.

But, the multi-level press center tower dwarfed the “water park” memory. The press seating area, which had been miniscule at Forest Hills, was massive. There were descending rows of writing desks. They weren’t actual desks, but rows and rows of wooden planks with barstools to sit on. The layout, which on first sight appeared sizeable, was actually claustrophobic. It was almost like spending the day working at Slew’s Place but without the ambience. It was cramped, and it was in the days before everyone used a laptop. Even worse, late in the afternoon the sun blazed on the gigantic aquarium-like window facing the center court below. It was similar to trying to write a story in a sauna, which made staying hydrated essential.

Even in the pre-Nadal days, there were complaints about the Deco Turf II hard courts. Those whose careers were founded on their Terre battue (or Har-Tru) accomplishments believed the new surface was too quick. The unhappiness reached a crescendo thanks to the La Guardia and Kennedy Airport “fly overs” that regularly disrupted matches. (Former New York City Mayor David Dinkins [who is a tennis fan extraordinaire] stepped up and was able to have flights re-routed during the tournament.) As a group, though, the players were impressed by many of the amenities offered including the fact the locker rooms, dining areas and spots to relax were larger and all contained in one building. In short, the space provided a comfortable spacious atmosphere.

It was almost fitting that Connors, a fan favorite to many, after losing to Vilas the year before, picked up his third US Open title (on the third surface that the event had been played on) defeating Bjorn Borg of Sweden, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2. The women’s final was an unveiling long before “the future is now…” concept had legs. True, Evert claimed her fourth consecutive championship, 7-5, 6-4, but the focus was on Pam Shriver, a lanky 16-year-old amateur, whom she defeated. Shriver, the youngest tournament finalist, was the “surprise” of the championships after defeating Navratilova in the semifinals. Playing only her second Grand Slam tournament, she drew even more notice using the oversized Prince racquet. Bob Lutz and Stan Smith earned the doubles crown, and King and Navratilova took women’s honors. McMillian and Stove continued their dominance, winning yet another mixed doubles final.

From a personal standpoint, Forest Hills was an elegant, historic location that wasn’t suited to host a later day US Open. Initially, Flushing Meadow wasn’t either but look at it now. “The House that Slew Built” has become a mansion.

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A Rude And Silly Reply From Nadal, I Am Waiting For His Apology

I asked Nadal an innocent question about his wedding; he took it so badly that he eventually burst into an offensive: “That’s bullshit”

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LONDON – I was really surprised by Rafael Nadal’s reaction to a question that was quite innocent and totally legitimate. A reaction I consider unbecoming of him, rude and silly. I sincerely hope he will extend his apology for this behaviour. Respect remains paramount, no matter if you are the greatest champion or the new kid on the block. In front of everybody, Rafa disrespected me.

 

I hadn’t seen him since the Laver Cup in Geneva. And in the meantime,… he had gotten married. I had no intention whatsoever to ask a particularly original question or, as I have seen written in some tweets, to “show off”. And I certainly didn’t want to provoke him. Maybe the question did not come out the way I wanted: we always need to be concise during press conferences, and you cannot explain all the details, but what I wanted to ask was simply for him to explain whether the days around his wedding day had been emotional, different from the normal routine made of trainings, forehands and backhands. That’s all, no malicious innuendos, no desire to be irritating or original. I was just curious about what I considered a special moment in his life. Getting married is usually not like taking a walk in the park, even when it is possible to rely on a full team taking care of the arrangements – I assume that was the case for him – and there aren’t many details you have to worry about.

I am sorry I am forced to report such an ill-advised behaviour by Rafa Nadal of all people. He is a champion and, before that, a young man I have always appreciated, with whom I have had a good relationship ever since I saw him play for the first time in Montecarlo. He was just 17 years old, and one night he finished his match against Albert Costa very late, playing under the floodlights, in front of a scattered crowd, when most reporters had already left the Country Club to attend the traditional soirèe the tournament organizes every year at the Monte Carlo Sporting Club, next to the Jimmy’z.

This is the video footage of our exchange at the end of his English-language press conference, before the question time reserved for the Spanish press. Our dialogue starts at 10:50.

In essence, I asked Rafa if by any chance his wedding had been a disrupting element, albeit solemnly important, to his routine. This is the transcript of our interaction, with my notes in brackets.

Q. Tonight you were playing very short many times. I don’t know why, because you’re not used to that. I’d like to know, for many people to get married is a very important distracted thing (in the life of a man and a woman, it was implied) before the marriage, during the marriage, after the marriage. I’d like to know if somehow your concentration on tennis life has been a bit different even if you were going out with the same girl for many, many years (I was implying that it wasn’t love at first sight, I understand it didn’t turn his life upside down, but it still could have had some distracting effect, with the King of Spain being present and all… It wasn’t a small family wedding)

RAFAEL NADAL: Honestly, are you asking me this? Is a serious question or is a joke? Is it serious?

Q. It’s serious. (Off microphone.) Is not something that happens every day (at that point I had no microphone any longer so my retort was not captured by the official transcript), you can experience strong emotions, your parents, your wife, yourself…

RAFAEL NADAL: Okay. I surprise, is a big surprise for me you ask me this after I have been with the same girl for 15 years and having a very stable and normal life.

Doesn’t matter if you put a ring on your finger or not. In my personal way, I am a very normal guy.

Maybe for you was (did he want to add ‘different’) — how many years you have been with your…

Q. Wife 30 years this year.

RAFAEL NADAL: And before?

Q. (off microphone) 5 years

RAFAEL NADAL: Ah, maybe before you were not sure. That’s why (he smiles to the rest of the press room and he adds). Okay. Okay. We move to Spanish, because that’s bullshit. Thank you very much.

Unfortunately, due to some background chatter in the interview room I didn’t hear the “bullshit” word, I just read it on the transcript after a few colleagues made me notice he disrespected me. In fact, as soon as I went back to the press room, all colleagues, French, Swiss, even Spanish expressed their support to me because my question was perfectly legitimate, it was not engaging, mean, embarrassing or indelicate. So much so that when Rafa asked me whether it was a joke or a serious question, I immediately replied “It’s serious”. I was surprised he even had to ask.

The fact that Rafa has been together with Cisca, Francisca, Maria Francisca or Mer for 15 years does not imply that the days around his wedding, with 300 guests, friends, the King of Spain Juan Carlos ans other sporting legends were just like a walk in the park. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know whether Rafa’s parents, or Meri’s parents or some of their close friends cried, were moved to tears, experienced all those emotions that are normally coupled with weddings.

If Rafa did not experience any emotions just because he has been with the same woman for 15 years, that’s his problem. As far as I am concerned, maybe I’m just more romantic, or softer, but I thought it would be normal to get emotional in tying the knot with the woman of your life in front of so many people; an important, unforgettable moment. People usually live that day as a very special day. Rafa does not hold back expressing his emotions when he wins an important point on court – over and above his “vamos”, his jumps and his fist pumps – if his wedding day was a routine experience for him, but just the formalization of his union by exchanging rings with his fiancée… well, I am sorry for him. I don’t know what Xisca thinks about it. Judging from Rafa’s response, there should be no enthusiasm or emotion capable to upset his routine, when getting married after having been with the same woman for 15 years. He was even surprised when someone, like myself, asked him about possible emotions on his wedding day. I am stunned. I don’t want to make a big deal out of it, but I feel I should point this out because of the way he treated me. 

To put it simply, I could not believe that even after dating the same woman for 15 years, the day before the wedding could be completely routine, without any emotional involvement. This is why I asked the question, without thinking it could be misinterpreted, or considered a joke, even less labeled as ‘bullshit’. 

Perhaps Rafa was nervous because he had just lost a match (6-2, 6-4 without ever getting a break point) against an opponent he had always defeated before, Alexander Zverev. This could partially justify his behaviour, but he had not given any signs of nerves during the previous questions. I have always considered him an intelligent person. But sometimes even intelligent people make mistakes or say silly things. But they apologise afterwards. I hope Rafa is going to do it, sooner or later. If he won’t, never mind. But he will not make a very good impression to me or to all my colleagues, including the Spanish reporters from Puntodebreak and Eurosport who came to talk to me immediately after the incident. 

I want to stress once again that my curiosity about how he may have reacted to an important moment in his life that I didn’t believe could be seen as a mere formality, was entirely innocent. He didn’t understand it, I hope someone will explain him, even if this for sure will not be an important moment in his life. Even if, in some way, we have been knowing and seeing each other for 15 years.

Article originally published in Italian on ubitennis.com

 

NOTE TO OUR READERS – In reference to the exchange occurred between myself and Rafael Nadal during the press conference following his first match, I have had a clarifying meeting after his win against Medvedev. We both have acknowledged the reasons that led to the misunderstanding and the subsequent exchange of unpleasant words, mainly due to our imperfect knowledge of the English language. This is it. We’ll turn the page, for everyone’s satisfaction, and Nadal and I maintain the mutual respect that has always been a cornerstone of our relationship. Our readers are naturally free to form their own opinion on this event, but at this stage any further comment would appear unnecessary. Thank you for your attention. (Ubaldo Scanagatta)

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Modern Tennis: Evolution Of A Game

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It’s a well-known fact that every single thing goes into renovation and re-shaping as we move on, sports are, certainly, included in this category that undergoes usually, from time to time, new adjustments and modifications that are probably attributed to two main reasons; to cope with the contemporary trend, particularly, among young people and other commercial aspects like promoting it to a broader population of fans. Tennis is one of a few sports that has retained most of its rules and traditions until the moment, however, introducing some little changes in the game could serve the sport better, make it more interesting for people got already bored of it, even more appealing for new audience, and most importantly more optimum and safer for the players.

 

We will get through some of the new technological and technical innovations that have been introduced into the Next Generation ATP Finals over the three editions of the tournament and expose its pros and cons.

New rules and innovations introduced to this year’s edition of Next Gen ATP Finals

The format of the tournament, since its emerging in 2017, has been quite different with the objective of attracting more fans by making matches quicker and have more exciting moments in less amount of time.

The most fundamental part of the new format has been the number of games per set, which became four games a set instead of 6 with a Tie-Break at 3-All, and No-Ad scoring. The shorter set has been compensated for with the matches being best-of-five sets so that a player needs to win 12 games to win a match. The introduction of such a new format has obviously increased the intensity of the matches by speeding up the pace of every rally, so that after every changeover you will definitely not witness more than 14 points thanks to the No-Ad scoring role, which means also more break points.

The No-Ad scoring role, similar to that in doubles competition in the standards ATP tour, means that when it’s tied at deuce (40-All), the next point is considered the deciding point and regarding serving either in the deuce or advantage courts, in 2018 edition it was the receiver’s choice, while in 2019 it’s up to the server player.

I think that these modifications on the traditional format have brought much dynamics and speed, as you can see that everything is pretty quick that needs the players to exert little physical efforts on each point which eventually helps them comply much easier to the shot clock and most probably that would impress a lots of fans amongst young ones, and would be appreciated as well by most people having a real busy schedule.

However, players have to adapt to this new format in terms of mental alertness and tactics, because everything is going very fast and if one player lost his concentration for a moment or two on his service game, with the No-Ad scoring rule, that could cost him the set which would ruin his whole match even with considering that it’s a best-of-five sets match.

The innovations, at the Next Generation ATP Finals, haven’t been only technical but also included new cutting-edge technological services that would not only help ease the calls on points but also give the players and their chosen coaches reliable data and physical measures about their own performance and workload after each match that would assist them on evaluating their plans and training strategies.

An unusual appearance of a tennis court without lines umpires.

The usage of the very innovative Live Electronic Line Calling system has so many remarkable merits, as it really helps eliminating human’s errors, yet not absolutely eliminating errors as sometimes the machine doesn’t work in very rare cases, that’s why in close callings players have the right to watch a video review to get assured of the call. In addition, this contributes a lot to shorten the average time taken between points as the calls are usually clear and need no more evaluation from the umpire or the players. Another major advantage for such system installation is that now players don’t have to challenge calls they are having doubts over, for instance a player could’ve used all their challenges and they can no longer challenge the call despite having the call wrong, that would never be encountered with this innovative system.

The third edition of the Next Generation ATP Finals also features an unprecedented technology available on ATP, in which players are allowed to use wearable devices that would measure velocity and direction, acceleration and force, rotation, body orientation, and will quantify internal load (through heart rate). The data collected would be available after matches for the players and their coaches for further assessing the key elements of their game.

All these previous innovations and rule modifications cannot be seen, generally, to be compromising the core of the traditions of tennis, however, there is a one rule introduced at the Next Gen ATP Finals that shows a lot of controversy over if it’s affecting the core of the game or not, it’s the In-Match Player Coaching via head-sets. According to this rule, a player can communicate with his coach during a match at certain points, similar to what’s happening in the WTA, however the coaches aren’t permitted to come on court.

Khachanov communicating with his team during a match at the Next Gen ATP Finals in 2017

Some top players have had their say about that topic. While some backed the very new feature, others thought it doesn’t belong to the world of tennis.

“I’m not all for it, I find it kind of cool that in tennis, you know, you’re sort of on your own out there. Not everybody has the same amount of resources for coaching, as well. So I’m not sure if it’s that beneficial.” Argued 20-time Grand Slam Champion Roger Federer.

Federer giving his team-mate Nadal some tips during a match at Laver Cup

Federer’s long term rival Novak Djokovic had another thought about the In-Match Coaching, thinking that tennis should be like most of the other sports in this aspect of the game.

“When the WTA introduced on-court coaching, many ATP players were not really positive about it. I thought it was a good move for the sport. I mean, we’re probably one of the only, maybe [the] only global sport that doesn’t use coaching during the play. Even golf, individual sport, you have caddies that you communicate with throughout the entire course.” Said Djokovic.

One way of thinking is that tennis is based on playing individually in the first place, of course, players do put strategies and tactics with their coaching teams but when they get to the court, it’s all theirs, not only physically but also mentally, that’s why some players hire psychotherapist. On the other hand, some players might have some mental weaknesses and such an opportunity could deal with this problem during the match, and at the same time the other player would be offered the same opportunity so it’s fair after all.

I think people should keep watching closely this controversial very new rule being introduced to the world of tennis at the editions of the Next Gen ATP Finals and its effect on the players, then they can conclude whether it would affect the game in a positive or negative manner.

To conclude, every single sport has to keep up to date with the advancements taking place and the common tends, yet never to change its roots that it’s already been built upon. With most of the innovations that have been introduced to the Next Gen tournament, I think there is a great combination between cutting-edge technology represented on facilitate officiating and giving useful information for the players about their game, and optimizing some rules that wouldn’t necessarily compromise the origin of tennis.

 

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Laver Cup: As Europe’s blue reign, myriad hues peek out in event’s latest iteration

The 2019 Laver Cup showed all over again why it was an opportunity for tennis to be diverse in its offering.

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2019 Laver Cup, Team Europe, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal
Photo Credit: Laver Cup

Twelve matches spread over a three-day weekend later, Laver Cup has modified the proverbial face and scope of men’s tennis. It is still viewed sceptically as a disruptor to routine, individual-focused tennis matches in certain pockets. Yet, the singularity it has brought into the midst of the prevalent concept of individuality is irrevocable.

 

In the third year of the event’s emergence, these aspects are repetitive. However, Laver Cup’s display re-lit the theme of a team before a player. It also elevated it to heights not seen in its previous two editions. This showed in the players’ camaraderie with each other. As it did in the numerous coaching tips that came from the bench from Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and even Nick Kyrgios towards their fellow squad members.

Broadly, it was laid out in how the Laver Cup changed the subject from who would win the most Slams to which part of the globe would be victorious. For once, the conversation did not focus on 20 Slams versus 19, as it had come to be after Nadal’s win at the US Open. It was riveted on how two sportsmen with 39 Slams between them could set aside their competitiveness towards a common goal for a still-mushrooming tourney.

“Winning (as) teams is just amazing because you celebrate together. It’s a very special thing. Honestly, I really hope that this new and young generation keeps supporting this event because this event is special,” Nadal said after Team Europe’s three-peat on Sunday. “We need to make this event stronger and stronger because the atmosphere that we leave here is difficult to find in other places.”

The 33-year-old’s statements, aside from setting aside any cynicism about his involvement in the event this year, emphasised the growth Laver Cup has had in its three years. Nadal’s participation in Laver Cup’s inaugural year was seen as a novelty, a continuation of his and Federer’s triumphant return to the Tour after an injury-troubled 2016. Novak Djokovic’s inclusion in Europe’s 2018 squad was viewed as a reiteration that the event was a fad, where top-ranked players would make a one-off appearance, before stepping away.

In 2019, the 12-time French Open champion’s return contradicted this previously-held supposition. This shifting of perceptions is why Laver Cup has turned problematic to the Tour’s other mainstay events.

If Laver Cup were to be regarded as merely an exhibition, a tournament with no relevance to how the ATP tour progressed year-on-year with its usual clanking schedule, all of the players’ emotiveness and reactions would have been on par with the idea of livening it up for its sake.

https://twitter.com/rogerfederer/status/1176258686269952000

On the other hand, when two former world no. 1s were heard sternly telling their touted successor not to be negative for the rest of his match, it was hard to convince that the whole atmosphere was made-up.

Though, it does bear noting that not being put-on and the ease with which it has been assimilated in tennis’ mainstay have been the catalysts for Laver Cup’s disparaging mooting in certain circles.

The past weekend it coincided with a couple of ATP tournaments, in St. Petersburg and Metz. Both events had several interesting match-ups of their own. Followers deeply vested in the sport knew the happenings across all tournaments held last week. But for casual viewers, it would have come down to picking one event over the rest.

The factoring in of this unnecessary chasm added to the enervation around tennis by making one take sides in a sport that is already at crossroads, without Laver Cup even being mentioned.

Yet, if it were about inclusivity, selectivity in audiences’ preferences is the other side of tennis’ coin. These choices cannot always remain aligned, even in accepting or discarding the tri-day tournament as a consequential pursuit. As Nadal opined, when asked to compare between his other title wins and his Laver Cup team win, “…every single thing is different and is important by itself.”

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