Alexander Zverev Triumphant Again while Tiafoe Steals the Show in Vienna - UBITENNIS
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Alexander Zverev Triumphant Again while Tiafoe Steals the Show in Vienna

The American qualifier beat Tsitsipas, Schwartzman and Sinner with his trademark flair, but did he cross a line?

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Frances Tiafoe (USA) and Alexander Zverev (GER) - Vienna 2021- (© e-motion/Bildagentur Zolles KG/Christian Hofer)

Those of us who follow the world of tennis with unbridled passion year after year and decade after decade have frequently been spoiled. We watch the best players in the world as they chase the  most prestigious prizes on the planet at the four Grand Slam events. We see them shining brightly at all of the Masters 1000 tournaments which have achieved a lasting prominence across the years. We witness these sterling performers competing in Davis Cup and marvel at their exploits as they represent their countries in the most important international tennis team event.

 

Yet seldom have I found myself so immersed in an ATP 500 tournament as I was this past week. The Erste Bank Open in Vienna was a gripping spectacle from beginning to end. Alexander “Sascha” Zverev collected his fifth title of the 2021 season in style with some spectacular tennis down the stretch. The German reaffirmed that he has taken his game to a newfound level of excellence, and the feeling grows that he will surely secure at least one of the four Majors in the coming year. To be sure, Zverev has not only demonstrably improved his tennis across the board, but he has also come into his own as a competitor of a very high order.

In his sparkling 2021 campaign, Zverev has taken the gold medal at the Olympic Games, two Masters 1000 prizes in Madrid and Cincinnati, and now he has garnered a second ATP 500 crown. No one outside of Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev has accomplished more than Zverev this year. He stood under the spotlight in Vienna looking entirely comfortable in his own skin, performing majestically over the course of the week, winning the tournament with discipline, determination and unshakable self assurance. Having lost a quarterfinal he should have won in his previous appearance at Indian Wells a few weeks earlier against Taylor Fritz, Zverev recovered his winning ways commendably and now he has captured 25 of his last 27 matches since suffering a five set loss at Wimbledon against Felix Auger-Aliassime in the round of 16 at Wimbledon.

Indisputably, Zverev was the last man standing in Vienna and a worthy victor in the end. And yet, in many ways the tournament belonged to another player who did everything but win the event. We are talking, of course, about the charismatic and ebullient Frances Tiafoe of the United States.

Let’s start with the fact that, despite a sporadically brilliant year, the enigmatic American had to qualify for Vienna. Was the field that strong, or was this a reflection of Tiafoe’s instability over the course of the season? The answer to both questions is yes. A player of Tiafoe’s considerable capabilities should not have needed to quality, but the fact remains that the field was remarkably stout. And so he had to deal with the indignity of earning a spot in the main draw.

Frances Tiafoe (USA) – Vienna 2021 (© e-motion/Bildagentur Zolles KG/Christian Hofer)

Tiafoe did just that. Largely unnoticed, Tiafoe took his two matches in the qualifying, but not easily. In the first round, he toppled Alex Molcan 6-4 3-6 6-1. He was pushed again in the second round before battling back for a 6-7(5) 6-4 6-3 triumph over Lucas Miedler. Tiafoe has always been a player with a clear preference for testing himself against the game’s best known performers rather than facing those with lesser resumes and reputations.

But he dealt admirably with the situation, and toppled the Serbian Dusan Lajovic 6-4 6-4 in the first round of the main draw. That gave this versatile shotmaker the opportunity to get another crack at world No.3 Stefanos Tsitsipas in the round of 16. Tiafoe had upended the Greek stylist in an opening round contest at Wimbledon in the first round, prevailing in straight sets. On that occasion, while Tiafoe played inspired tennis and attacked at all the right times, Tsitsipas seemed a shell of his normal self and was perhaps suffering  a lingering hangover from his five set loss to Novak Djokovic in the French Open final.

This time around, the Greek competitor seemed back on song and ready to avenge his defeat at the hands of Tiafoe. Tsitsipas was serving as well as he had done in a long while and was totally in control of the encounter. He pocketed the first set comfortably and was on serve at 3-4 in the second set. He was the far superior player at that point. But in that pendulum swinging eighth game of the second set, Tsitsipas missed all ten first serves, double faulted three times, and made a succession of anxiety-induced errors.

Tiafoe broke and soon won the set, but Tsitsipas was quickly back in control, building a 3-0 final set lead. At 3-1 on his own delivery, he had a game point but did not convert it. Tiafoe made it back to 3-3, but Tsitsipas wasted another game point and lost his serve again in that seventh game on a double fault. Tiafoe raised his game decidedly, began serving with thunder, and he imposed himself forcefully. Tsitsipas could not counter the American’s pace. Taking six of the last seven games, Tiafoe knocked out the top seeded player 3-6 6-3 6-4. Tsitsipas remained mired in a debilitating slump.

Next on the agenda for Tiafoe was the industrious Diego Schwartzman, the “Little Big Man” of tennis. Schwartzman had won both of his previous head-to-head showdowns with Tiafoe, achieving each of these victories earlier this year. Extraordinary foot speed and supreme resilience from the backcourt had carried him through on those occasions. But Tiafoe was awfully confident after rallying to beat Tsitsipas, and he seemed well on his way to a comfortable victory when he outperformed Schwartzman in the first set and then moved out in front 5-1 in the second.

Thereafter, matters got complicated for the 23-year-old American. Very complicated. He served for the match at 5-1 in the second set and lost his serve at love. He wasted a match point at 5-2. Before he knew it, Schwartzman was serving for the set at 6-5 but Tiafoe found his range in the nick of time, broke back easily and made it to a tie-break. Down set point at 5-6 in that sequence, Tiafoe aced his adversary, who happens to be the third best returner in tennis behind Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. Tiafoe took the next two points to overcome Schwartzman 6-4, 7-6(6). Had that match gone to three sets, Tiafoe would have been likely to lose. When he lost those five consecutive games in that bizarre second set, he was unraveling emotionally as well.

No matter. Now he was in the semifinals, up against the surging Jannik Sinner. Tiafoe was getting soundly beaten and almost trounced by the confident Italian ball striker. Sinner led 6-3, 3-0, with a 15-40 lead on Tiafoe’s serve in the fourth game. The American escaped. With Sinner at 4-1, Sinner had a break point but failed to convert it. And yet, he calmly advanced to 5-2. Sinner was masterful up until that stage, controlling the complexion of the match meticulously, keeping Tiafoe on the move and out of sorts. Tiafoe seemed to have almost given up.

Carlos Alcaraz (ESP) – Vienna 2021 (© e-motion/Bildagentur Zolles KG/Christian Hofer)

But almost is the operative word. Sinner is on the edge of some prodigious achievements. He is a professional through and through, a man who tends to his business sternly and systematically. He leaves no stone unturned in his pursuit of victory. One day soon, he is going to be a great champion who will make winning the premier prizes something of a habit.

He is not there yet. Sometimes he seems to care almost too much about what he is doing, and then he can succumb to bouts of serious anxiety. After Tiafoe held serve in the eighth game, Sinner served for the match. He had just won the tournament in Antwerp the week before, claiming his fourth title of the season. Perhaps he was somewhat physically fatigued, but this match got away because he was entirely too apprehensive.

When he had the chance to end it all and land in another final, Sinner fell apart. Serving for the match at 5-3 in that fateful second set, Sinner led 15-0, standing three points away from an important victory that could have propelled him into seventh place ahead of Casper Ruud (whom he had just beaten in Vienna) in the Race to Turin. That was almost surely weighing on his mind. The 20-year-old made three consecutive unforced errors, two off the backhand, one off the forehand. He was broken at 15 as Tiafoe connected with a dazzling backhand pass down the line.

Tiafoe was not simply revitalized; he started playing madly inspired tennis, as if he had suddenly been given a new lease on life. He held at 30 for 5-5 and broke Sinner in the following game again with some improvising that defied belief, making a forehand half volley drop shot winner that kissed the sideline. It was as if he was playing a practice match that meant nothing, but to Sinner this turnaround was deeply serious and disconcerting. He double faulted that game away and never really recovered. An unconsciously magnificent Tiafoe marched to victory 3-6 7-5 6-2 over a despondent Sinner.

Not only was Sinner feeling the sting of an improbable defeat, but he was perturbed by some excessively demonstrative behavior from his opponent. Tiafoe is an enormously crowd pleasing performer and there is nothing wrong with that; in fact, it is one of his finest qualities because fans always look forward to establishing eye contact with him and feeling as if he is there to entertain them. In that regard, Tiafoe is great for the game. He connects with his audiences the way few performers are inclined to do.

But in this instance Tiafoe went too far and stepped over a line with his conduct in my view. Repeatedly as he waged his stunning comeback, he “high-fived” the spectators,  hugged some fans after chasing a ball near the stands and simply went overboard with the antics. Normally Tiafoe knows when to stop with his theatrics, and he has a measured way of getting the audiences on his side and allowing them to bring out the best in him, but here he was disrespectful to his opponent.

In any case, regardless of his demonstrativeness and whether or not it was excessive, Tiafoe had taken over Vienna and turned it into something resembling his hometown. The fans treated him as if he was an Austrian. For the first time in his career, he had won 29 matches in a year, surpassing his 2018 record by one match. His three victories over top 20 ranked players was a first for the American. But he could not contain Zverev in the title round contest. The German took the racket completely out of his hand, and served him off the court.

Zverev was devastatingly potent on serve at the outset of the final. In his first two service games, Zverev did not lose a point. He served one ace in the opening game and four more in the third game. Tiafoe had no clue how to read where Zverev’s delivery was going. He did not get a single return back into play in those first two service games from the No.2 seed. When the German broke for a 3-1 lead, he seemed certain to secure that first set swiftly and unhesitatingly.

That was not the case. Although Zverev put all five first serves in play in the fifth game, his location was not as precise as usual and Tiafoe took full advantage. Moreover, Zverev gave away three points with abysmal mistakes off the ground. Tiafoe’s magic had reappeared. They were back on serve. To 5-5 they went, but now Zverev fully asserted his authority, holding at love with two aces and then breaking Tiafoe in a three deuce game as the American kept pressing off the ground. Set to Zverev, 7-5.

The second set was also hard fought as Tiafoe competed with quite professionalism and deep determination. He fended off one break point in the second game and three more in the sixth, but Zverev was merciless.  On his way to 4-4 he served three love games and won 16 of 18 service points. But, as if a script had been written, suddenly Tiafoe had an opening in the ninth game. Zverev led 40-15 but Tiafoe reached break point. Zverev, however, would not buckle, releasing a service winner, an ace and a scintillating backhand crosscourt to hold on for 5-4 before breaking at love to close out the contest 7-5, 6-4 on a run of seven consecutive points at the end. Zrerev served 19 aces and made 82% of his first serves, winning 80% of those points. Altogether he won 43 of 56 points on serve and was broken only once. He did not serve a single double fault. Moreover, his controlled aggression from the baseline was breathtaking.

Zverev had peaked propitiously at the end of the tournament. He had opened with a 6-2 7-5 victory over Filip Krajinovic after trailing 2-5 in the second set. Then he dropped a set before ousting Alex De Minaur 6-2 3-6 6-2. He then had another mid-match lapse before subduing Auger-Aliassime 6-4 3-6 6-3. But then Zverev lifted his game immensely for a semifinal duel with the astonishing 18-year-old Carlos Alcaraz, winning sweepingly 6-3 6-3 without losing his serve, pouring in 79% of his first serves and taking 84% of those points. Alcaraz is a kid who seems to always know precisely what he is doing on a tennis court. Not only is he a mighty striker of the ball, but he has a match playing maturity that is extraordinary.

But Zverev was so overpowering from the baseline and so unstoppable on serve that Alvarez was never allowed to operate with his customary comfort and precision. Zverev had only one vulnerable moment, when he served for the match at 5-3 in the second set, starting that game with his lone double fault of the confrontation and later faced his only break point. But he settled down and closed out the account deservedly.

Alcaraz, meanwhile, had nothing to be ashamed about. He prevailed in one of the tournament’s signature moments. His quarterfinal against Matteo Berrettini was another significant step in the evolution of a champion. Alcaraz is simply not going to be denied his home among the elite over the next couple of years. His triumph over the Italian No. 1 is abundant proof of that.

At the outset, Alcaraz was blasting away off the ground and keeping Berrettini totally at bay, and his returns were astounding. In the first set, Berrettini took only one game and won only 57% of his first serve points. He was dazed by the supersonic speed of the shots coming at him from a fearless adversary.

The Italian fought tenaciously, saving four break points in the second set, salvaging it in a well played tie-break. Once more, Berrettini was perched precariously in the third set, trailing 1-4 and seemingly confounded. But he broke back. And yet, in a final set tie-break his ground game collapsed and the kid would not miss. Alcaraz did not lose a point on serve, and he produced one of the biggest wins of his career, succeeding 6-1 6-7 (2) 7-6 (5).

All in all, it was a tournament to savor. Alcaraz played a prominent role by reaching the semifinals. Tiafoe perhaps has a permanently altered view of himself and his potential after a series of gritty performances in Austria.

But, ultimately and undeniably, the week was above all else a celebration of Sascha Zverev, who played tennis of the highest caliber, competed steadfastly and came away with another hard earned prize that will carry him with conviction into the last two big events of the season at Paris and Turin.

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Steve Flink has been reporting full time on tennis since 1974, when he went to work for World Tennis Magazine. He stayed at that publication until 1991. He wrote for Tennis Week Magazine from 1992-2007, and has been a columnist for tennis.com and tennischannel.com for the past 14 years. Flink has written four books on tennis including “Dennis Ralston’s Tennis Workbook” in 1987; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century” in 1999; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” in 2012; and “Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited”. The Sampras book was released in September of 2020 and can be purchased on Amazon.com. Flink was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2017.

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Why Celebrating LGBT+ Pride Month In Tennis Matters

Besides the fancy rainbow-coloured clothing that is worn, there is a far more important reason.

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Guido Pella during a Men's Singles match at the 2021 US Open, Wednesday, Sep. 1, 2021 in Flushing, NY. (Manuela Davies/USTA)

June is when players switch their focus from the clay to grass in order to tune up their preparations ahead of the prestigious Wimbledon Championships. But for some linked to the sport this month is also significant for another reason.

 

It is LGBT pride month which is an initiative that was originally created as a way to mark the Stonewall Riots which began on June 28th 1969 in New York. A series of protests took place in response to a police raid on the Stonewall Inn which was the catalyst in the fight for equal rights among the LGBT community. In the UK the first pride March was held in 1972 and today there are more than 100 events in the country annually.

Today Pride is about promoting equality in the world with various organizations taking part, including tennis. The British Lawn Tennis Association has gotten more involved this year by hosting a series of Pride Days at their ATP and WTA events. They have taken place on the Friday of tournaments in Nottingham, Birmingham and Queen’s. The final one is taking place this Friday in Eastbourne.

“We still live in a time when people don’t always feel like they can be open about their sexual orientation or gender identity, so the more we can do to show support and let them know everything is ok the better,’ British player Liam Broady recently said.

https://twitter.com/the_LTA/status/1537788274890121216

Some may wonder as to if Pride events such as these are necessary in tennis considering it is 2022 and lives for LGBT people have improved considerably over the years. However, there is still work to be done. One study called OUTSPORT found that 90% of LGBT+ respondents believe that homophobia and transphobia is a problem in sport and 33% remain closeted in their own sporting context. Another study conducted in recent years is Out On The Fields which found almost eight out of 10 respondents felt that an openly gay person would not be very safe as a spectator at a sporting event. Obviously, these findings vary depending on the sport and the country, but it still illustrates the seriousness of the subject.

In tennis, the WTA Tour has seen various LGBT role models triumph at the very top. Both Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova were some of the very first professional athletes to come out publicly during the 1980s which was a decade when misinformation about the Aids crises lead to the stigmation of the gay community. King said she lost all of her endorsements within 24 hours after being outed in 1981 and that was before the Aids crisis erupted. Navratilova also experienced similar misfortunes.

The WTA was founded on the principles of equality and opportunity, along with positivity and progress, and wholeheartedly supports and encourages players, tournaments, partners and fans’ commitment to LGBT+ initiatives,” the WTA told UbiTennis last week.
“The WTA supports LGBT+ projects across the tennis family, such as amplifying our athletes’ voices on this topic through the Tour’s global platforms, increasing awareness by incorporating the LGBT+ spirit into our wider corporate identity, among many other initiatives.”

The International Tennis Federation (ITF) tells UbiTennis the sport has a ‘proud history of advocating social change.’ The organization oversees the running of all junior events, Davis Cup, Billie Jean King Club and the Olympic tennis events.

“Inclusion is one of the ITF’s core values and a pillar of the ITF 2024 strategy. Tennis as a sport has a proud history of advocating social justice and instigating change. Within the tennis community, we embrace the LGBTQ community and full support any initiative, such as the celebration of Pride Month, that continues the conversation and furthers progress in ensuring sport and society are free from bias and discrimination in any form. There is always more that can be done, and we will continue to make every effort to ensure that all our participants, our employees and fans feel welcome, included, and respected day in, day out.” The ITF said in a statement.

Whilst the women’s Tour has had plenty of LGBT role models, it is different on the men’s circuit. At present there is no openly gay player in men’s tennis where around 2000 people have an ATP ranking. In recent months the governing body has looked into making the Tour more inclusive. Last year they reached out to Lou Englefield, the director of Pride Sports, a UK organisation that focuses on LGBTQ+phobia in sport and aims to improve access to sport for all LGBTQ+ people. Through their connection, they contacted Eric Denison, a behavioural science researcher at Monash University’s School of Social Sciences. Monash University supplied the ATP with a series of scientifically validated questions, which they used to ‘look under the hood’ at the factors which supports a culture where gay or bisexual players feel they are not welcome.

It has been over nine months since news of the survey taking place emerged but the findings are still to be published. In an email to Ubitennis, the ATP confirmed that they are ‘finalizing their next steps’ and will be making an announcement shortly. They acknowledge that the survey process has taken longer than expected but it is unclear as to why.

As for those who may be experiencing difficulty in their personal lives regarding their sexuality, Brian Vahaly has his own advice which he shared with Ubitennis last year. Vahaly is a former top 100 player who came out as gay after retiring from the sport.

“Find somebody to talk to, somebody you trust. Know that people like us are there if you have questions. It’s just nice to have somebody to talk to who can help you learn about yourself,” he said.
“What I try to do is in terms of putting my family forward is that we live a pretty ‘normal life.’ I have two kids, I have a house and I walked my kids to preschool this morning. It doesn’t have to be such a defining characteristic of who you are. In the sports world, it feels that it is magnified, but what I want to show is that you can have a great athletic career, meet somebody and have a family no matter your sexuality.”

Pride is as much about making sports such as tennis an open environment for everyone as it is about marking a series of historic protests which took place in America more than 40 years ago.

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It’s Unfair, Rafa Is Too Good In Roland Garros Final

James Beck reflects on Nadal’s latest triumph at Roland Garros.

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Rafael Nadal - Roland Garros 2022 (foto Roberto Dell'Olivo)

This one was almost unfair.

 

It was like Rafa Nadal giving lessons to one of his former students at the Nadal academy back home in Mallorca.

When this French Open men’s singles final was over in less than two hours and a half, Rafa celebrated, of course. But he didn’t even execute his usual championship ritual on Court Philippe Chatrier of falling on his back on the red clay all sprawled out.

This one was that easy for the 36-year-old Spanish left-hander. He yielded only six games.

 It certainly didn’t have the characteristics of his many battles at Roland Garros with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.

It must have been a bit shocking to the packed house of mostly Rafa fans.

RAFA DIDN’T MISS ‘HIS SHOT’ OFTEN

Nadal didn’t miss many of his patented shots such as his famed reverse cross-court forehand. He was awesome at times. Young 23-year-old Casper Ruud must have realized that by the middle of the second set when Rafa started on his amazing 11-game winning streak to finish off a 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 victory.

Ruud is good. The Norway native will win his share of ATP titles, but probably not many Grand Slam titles. If any, at least until Rafa goes away to a retirement, certainly on his island of Mallorca.

Rafa already has his own statue on the grounds of Roland Garros. Perhaps, Mallorca should be renamed Rafa Island.

RUUD COULDN’T HANDLE RAFA’S PRESSURE

Ruud displayed a great forehand at times to an open court. But when Rafa applied his usual pressure to the corners Ruud’s forehand often  went haywire.

Rafa’s domination started to show in the third set as Ruud stopped chasing Nadal’s wicked reverse cross-court forehands. 

Ruud simply surrendered the last three games while Nadal yielded only three points. Nadal finished it off with a sizzling backhand down the line. In the end, nice guy, good sport and former student Ruud could only congratulate Rafa.

JOHNNY MAC: RAFA ‘INSANELY GOOD’

The great John McEnroe even called Nadal’s overall perfection “insanely good.”

If Iga Swiatek’s 6-1, 6-3 win in Saturday’s women’s final over young Coco Gauff was a mismatch,  Iga’s tennis idol staged a complete domination of Ruud a day later.

It appears that the only thing that can slow Rafa down is his nearly always sore left foot, not his age. He won his first French Open final 17 years ago.

For Nadal to win a 22nd Grand Slam title to take a 22-20-20 lead over his friends and rivals Djokovic and Federer is mind-boggling, but not as virtually unbelievable as winning a 14th  French Open title.

James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

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At The French Open Rafa and Novak Lived Up To A Battle For The Ages

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Rafael Nadal (photo @RolandGarros)

Rafa Nadal is simply amazing.

 

His herd of fans couldn’t have been more pleased with their hero on this day just hours from his 36th birthday. He was never better, his patented reverse  cross-court forehand a marvel for the ages and his serve never more accurate.

The presence of his long-time friend and rival on the Court Philippe Chatrier that he loves so much made Nadal’s victory over Novak Djokovic even more special. The 59th meeting between these two warriors was a match for the ages, marvelous play by both players. Some games seemed to go on forever, with these two legends of the game dueling for every point for nearly four hours in a match that started in May and ended in June.

NADAL HAS NEVER PLAYED BETTER

The 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (4) victory sends Nadal into his birthday on Friday to face Alexander Zverev for a spot in Sunday’s final of the French Open. Win or lose now, Rafa will remain the all-time leader in Grand Slam singles titles until at least Wimbledon due to his current 21-20-20 edge over Djokovic and Roger Federer.

Nadal played like he could go on forever playing his game, but he is quick to remind that his career could end at any time. The always painful left foot remains in his mind.

But the Spanish left-hander has never played better than when he overcame a 5-2 deficit against Djokovic in the fourth set. Nadal sparkled with energy, easily holding service, then fighting off two set points with true grit, holding easily to get back to 5-5 and then holding serve at love for 6-6.

A 6-1 TIEBREAKER DEFICIT TOO MUCH FOR EVEN NOVAK

The tiebreaker belonged to Rafa for six of the first seven points. That was too tough a task for even Novak to overcome.

Rafa’s podiatrist must have felt relieved at least for now. If Rafa was in pain, he didn’t show it for the first time in quite awhile.

If Nadal could pull off the feat of taming the big game and serving accuracy Zverev displayed while conquering potential whiz kid Carlos Alcaraz, and then taking out whoever is left in the battle between Denmark’s young Holger Rune, Croatia’s veteran Marin Cilic, Norway’s Casper Ruud and Russian Andrey Rublev, Nadal might own a nearly unbeatable lead with 22 Grand Slam titles.

James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

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