This time around, the final Grand Slam championship of the season concluded with Novak Djokovic capturing his third major of 2011, reaffirming that he is far and away the best player in the world by extending his season match record to an unimaginable 64-2 by securing his tenth title in twelve tournament appearances. Djokovic is now the sports unassailable champion, and he underlined his supremacy in New York by withstanding the deep rigors of the fortnight and toppling his two fiercest rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal back to back to secure his first U.S. Open crown. It had seemed almost inevitable all along that Serena Williams would claim a fourth Open championship and a 14th major in the process, but in the end Australias commendable Samantha Stosur startled the tennis world by comprehensively dissecting Williams 6-2, 6-3 in the final to garner her first major. At 27, Stosur played the match of her life, and displayed poise, professionalism technical assurance and tactical acuity that were admirable across the board.
Lets start our review of the tournament with the men. For the second time this year at the majors, the games Big Four of Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Andy Murray all made it to the semifinals. They still stand in their own league as the best players in the world, and yet others made their presence known in a significant way at the U.S. Open. John Isner reached his first quarterfinal ever at a Grand Slam tournament, and not undeservedly. The 69 American had played a first rate Open in 2009, upending Andy Roddick in a fifth set tie-break to reach the round of 16. But this year he surpassed that level on his way to the last eight. In the round of 16 out on the new and appealing Court 17, he took on the industrious and enterprising Gilles Simon, the Frenchman who had defeated 2009 Open victor Juan Martin Del Potro.
Isner played three excellent tie-breaks and was victorious in four sets, taking that match 7-6 (2), 3-6, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (4). Simon is among the most solid players in tennis, a veritable ball machine, a man who has a purpose behind every shot, and a large heart to boot. Isner knew he was in for an exhausting skirmish under a broiling sun. Having split the first two sets, the American served at 5-6, 30-30 in the third. Characteristically, he released consecutive aces to hold on. In the third set tie-break, he served three more clutch aces. The struggle was not over. He saved two set points at 4-5 in the fourth set, and then finished it off in another tie-break, serving his 26th and last ace on the penultimate point.
Isner was beaten in four sets by the No. 4 seed Murray 7-5, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (2), but he competed with quiet ferocity and lost with honor. Murray outclassed him for two sets, but Isner got an early break in the third and made it count. In the fourth set, the score was locked at 4-4 and Murray was at 15-40. Murray served an ace and then hit a second serve on the line that led to a winner. He escaped when it seemed entirely possible that Isner would take the match into a fifth set. Isner was 6-0 in tie-breaks coming into this one with Murray, but the British competitor was unbending. The American went for a 120 MPH second serve but double faulted long to trail 2-1. Murray did not miss a first serve in that breaker, and Isner could not take a point on his opponents delivery. Moreover, Isner missed a forehand volley with an open court to put Murray out in front 5-2, and soon both the tie-break and the match were gone.
The better player won, but Isner had every reason to be proud of his effort. He moved from No. 27 to No. 18 in the world after the tournament, and is clearly playing the best tennis of his career. His two-handed backhand down the line has improved decidedly, his flat forehand is a stroke that keeps every adversary uneasy, and he has gained much greater command of the volleyparticularly the low volley. Needless to say, his serve is one of the best in the sport. Isner could well join Mardy Fish in the top ten in the world next year.
Meanwhile, Andy Roddick also took something substantial away from this U.S. Open. After a litany of illnesses, injuries and setbacks, Roddick played his way into impressive form after a slow start at the Open. He turned the tables on David Ferrer in the round of 16, avenging a straight set loss to the Spaniard in Davis Cup with a four set victory. Roddick was obliterated by a top of the line Nadal in the quarterfinals, but his showing enabled the 29-year-old to rise from No. 21 in the world back up to No. 14. That was an important and valuable step for the 2003 U.S. Open champion, but can he rise much higher than that these days? I believe he will have his work cut out for him to get back to his old home in the worlds top ten.
While Isner and Roddick were the lone American men in the quarterfinals, the fact remains that Mardy Fish and Donald Young had a good tournament as well. Young achieved a round of 16 result at a major for the first time, upending two seeds to get there. His win over No. 14 seed Stan Wawrinka in the second round was a gritty piece of business. Young was down a break at 1-4 in the fifth set before prevailing in a fifth set tie-break that he won commandingly, 7-1. Then he took apart No. 24 seed Juan Ignacio Chela in straight sets before Murray gave him a lesson in match play, removing Young 6-2, 6-3, 6-3. But Young gained considerable ground and a reservoir of confidence with his stellar play in New York. The wild card was ranked No. 84 when the fortnight started, but after the tournament he moved to No. 57.
And yet, in the end, the essence of the tournament did not take shape until the semifinals. For the fifth year in a row, Djokovic and Federer clashed. In 2007, Djokovic served at 6-5, 40-0 in the opening set of the final against the Swiss, only to squander five set points. He lost that set in a tie-break, had two more set points in the second set, but lost that one as well. Federer took the title in straight sets. In 2008 and 2009, Federer stopped Djokovic in the semifinals, losing only one set in those two matches combined. And then, of course, they had a gripping showdown in the 2010 semifinals, with Djokovic blasting his way out of serious danger, saving two match points at 4-5 in the fifth on his serve with a bold forehand swing volley winner followed by an outright ground stroke winner off the forehand. He stunned Federer 7-5 in the fifth set.
They say that lightening does not strike twice, and only Yogi Berra believes there is such a thing as déjà vu all over again. But those who witnessed Djokovics astonishing escape against Federer this year in the semifinals would now subscribe to the Berra way of thinking. This was a contest that was more like a Three Act play, filled with shifts in the plot. In Act One, Federer held the upper hand, establishing a two sets to love lead. In the opening set, both men played with full conviction and sound execution. Not a break point was to be found. Djokovic won 24 of 29 points in his six service games, while Federer was not far behind with 24 of 31. The level of play was remarkably high as they backed up their deliveries with top of the line percentage play from the backcourt.
In the tie-break, however, the tension on both sides of the net was almost palpable. Djokovic double faulted to fall behind a double mini-break at 5-2, but then Federer returned the favor, double faulting to make it 5-3. But the Swiss advanced to 6-3 with an unanswerable wide serve in the deuce court, establishing a triple set point lead. Yet Djokovic saved one set point with a service winner, saved another with a forehand inside-out winner, and made it back to 6-6 with a forehand inside-in winner. Federer served his way to a 7-6 lead and a fourth set point, but Djokovic rallied to 7-7 with another scorching forehand that Federer could not handle.
Both men knew how crucial this sequence was. But Djokovic could not quite fend Federer off. Federer was the aggressor in winning the next two points to take the tie-break 9-7, forcing an error from his adversary with a penetrating forehand and then driving a backhand majestically up the line that was too much for Djokovic. Federer was buoyed by taking the set after so much turmoil at the end, but Djokovics expression was even more revealing. He seemed utterly distraught. The second set then unfolded along logical lines; Federer opened up his wings, swung freely and built on his advantage, while Djokovic was largely in disarray, his outlook downcast, his body language negative and defeatist. Federer surged to a 3-1 second set lead, Djokovic got back to 3-3, but then the Swiss broke at love in the seventh game when Djokovic made a backhand unforced error on the 23rd stroke of a terrific rally. Federer closed out that set convincingly, winning it 6-4, seemingly putting himself almost out of reach.
That was the end of Act One. But early in the third set, Act Two commenced. Federer let his guard down ever so slightly, and Djokovic altered his attitude significantly. Serving at 0-1 in that third set, Federer had a 40-30 lead but a topspin backhand unforced error cost him that point. An ace gave Federer a second game point, but Djokovic forced Federer into a backhand mistake with a deep two-hander crosscourt. Federer had one more game point but squandered it. After five deuces, Djokovic broke the five time champion with a deep forehand down the line that Federer sent into the net off his backhand side. From that juncture, Djokovic won 16 of 20 points on serve to win the set. His swagger and sense of self was back, and Federer was sagging.
In the fourth set, Djokovic was soaring. He surged to a 5-1, 15-40 lead, and nearly broke Federer for a third time in that set. But Federers survival instincts kicked in just in the nick of time. He swung a second serve wide to the forehand in the deuce court that Djokovic was unable to get back into play, and then Federer drove a backhand topspin crosscourt, going behind the Serbian for a winner. Federerwho had started to resemble a punch drunk fighter as Djokovic bombarded him with crackling winners from every part of the courtobstinately held on for 2-5. Although Djokovic closed out the set by holding in the eighth game, Federer had made a vital stand, allowing him to start serving in the fifth and final set, an advantage that nearly lifted him to victory.
It was as if Federer had been administered a shot of adrenaline as he regrouped in that fifth set. Act Three was underway. Federer fed off the energy of a crowd that was almost entirely in his corner, rediscovered his footwork, and served beautifully. Djokovic, too, was performing brilliantly. But at 3-4, Djokovic suddenly and almost inexplicably lost his intensity and was broken at love, missing three of four first serves, serving a double fault at 0-30, wearing the forlorn look of a player who thought he was on his way out of the tournament. And so Federer served for the match at 5-3 in the fifth, with the crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium ready to erupt. Although he lost the first point of that game, Federer stormed to 40-15 with an ace and two feeble missed second serve returns from Djokovic. Federer was right where he dreamed of being, up double match point at 40-15, one swing away from avenging his agonizing 2010 Open loss to Djokovic.
Federer went with the slice serve wide in the deuce court, a tactic that had worked consistently well for him all across the contest. Either Djokovic would miss going down the line, or his return would come back down the middle of the court, allowing Federer to crack an inside-out forehand out of the Serbians reach. So Federer went with the percentages, sending his first serve to Djokovics forehand once more. But this one did not break sufficiently wide, and Djokovic went totally for broke, unleashing a dazzling flat forehand return winner crosscourt. Initially the crowd was silent, but as Djokovic walked over to the Ad Court in preparation for the next point, he raised his hands demonstratively and nodded at the crowd above him, as if to say, Come on, now, doesnt a great shot like that deserve some recognition?
The audience responded whole-heartedly, cheering and appreciating his gesture. Djokovic had connected with the crowd, giving many of them a reason to get behind him. But despite that spectacular return from Djokovic, Federer had a second match point at his disposal. He directed a 123 MPH first serve into Djokovics body on the backhand side. Djokovic somehow fended it off, making a decent return down the middle, but not deep. Federer was probably surprised that the ball came back. He moved forward and attempted an inside-out forehand winner, his old trademark shot that had carried him through the afternoon almost unfailingly. But his shot clipped the net cord and did not clear the net, going wide. It was deuce.
Djokovic got to break point when Federer erred again with the inside-out forehand, but the 30-year-old Swiss revived to deuce with a 125 MPH ace down the T. Once more, he was two points away from a second triumph at a major over Djokovic this year. But Djokovic stayed true to his task, earning a break point with a penetrating forehand that rushed Federer into a forehand error. Now an unraveling Federer double faulted long, and it was 5-4. In the space of a few minutes, his psyche had been altered irreversibly. From 4-5 in that final set, Djokovic lost only three more points in the last three games. Altogether, he swept 14 of the last 17 points, and four games in a row. What a way to end Act Three!
The Serbian had brought about a dramatic turnaround, just when Federer seemed to have the match firmly in his grasp. For the second year in a row, Djokovic had saved two match points to beat his old rival. But unlike a year ago, Federer was serving on the match points, making the setback all the more unexplainable in his mind. In the press conference after the match, he was understandably disconsolate, and some of his comments wereto say the leastterse. Most revealing of all was when he was asked if that audacious shot from Djokovic was a function of luck, risk, or confidence. When the reporter used the word confidence, Federer launched into a belligerent answer that made little sense.
Confidence? he began. Are you kidding me? I mean, please. Look, some players grow up and play like that. I remember losing junior matches, just being down 5-2 in the third, and they all just start slapping shots. It all goes in for some reason, because thats kind of the way they grew up playing when they were down. I never played that way. I believe in hard works gonna pay off kind of thing, because early on maybe I didnt always work at my hardest. So for me, this is very hard to understand, how you can play a shot like that on match point. But, look, maybe hes been doing that for 20 years, so for him it was very normal. Youve got to ask him.
With all due respect to Federer, that response was ludicrous. Why wouldnt Djokovic go for broke at double match point down? What did he have to lose? Was he going to get away with another return down the middle that Federer could demolish? The worst part of the answer was that Federer implied that Djokovic hit one blind winner after another the whole match, or at least down the stretch. That could not be more untrue. In fact, Djokovic worked exceedingly hard to win points all match long, took chances only at the right times when he was either up 40-0 or way behind, and played his typically tenacious and aggressive baseline brand of tennis. There was nothing reckless about it.
Djokovic was the first to concede that he had been lucky to hit that winner when he was going for it in such uninhibited fashion, but the fact remains that at the top level of the game players can make those shots as easily as they can miss them. Djokovic took a big risk at just the right time, when his back was to the wall. For Federer to knock that philosophy was difficult to comprehend. After he lost to Nadal at Roland Garros in the final, Federer implied that Nadal was nothing more than a pusher, saying that he (Federer) controlled the outcome of their matches, claiming that if he played well he came out on top and if he did not Nadal would win. That was inaccurate and nonsensical as well.
The bottom line is that Federer displays grace, elegance and class when he wins, and his conduct on the court is beyond reproach. But he is not a gracious loser. He always wants to spin a tale of why he lost instead of acknowledging that he was outplayed. There always seems to be some kind of string attached as an explanation for the losses. It remains baffling to me why he cant be more magnanimous in defeat when he has tasted the champagne so many times, beyond his wildest dreams.
In turn, another fundamental point must be made. Federer has always been surprisingly vulnerable in five set contests, even when he was dominating the game. In 2005, for example, he had a match point in the fourth set of his semifinal against Marat Safin at the Australian Open before losing in five sets. Later that year in Shanghai in the final of the ATP World Tour Championships, he was up two sets against Nalbandian, and later served for the match at 6-5, 30-0 in the fifth set, but lost that match. Those are two early examples.
In recent years, the problem has grown by leaps and bounds. In 2008 in the epic at Wimbledon, he came within two points of a comeback from two sets down against Nadal, but fell 9-7 in the fifth. The following year, he lost 6-2 in the fifth set to Nadal in the Australian Open final, and was two points away from a four set triumph over Juan Martin Del Potro in the U.S. Open final before his level dropped considerably in losing the fifth set 6-2 again. On to 2010, and the loss to Djokovic at the U.S. Open. Speed ahead to this year, when he had Tsonga two sets to love at Wimbledon in the quarters but lost in five. And now this latest setback against Djokovic at the Open.
His five set record now stands at an unexceptional 18-16 over the course of his career. To be sure, he has won some impressive five set victories, including a comeback from two sets down against Tommy Haas at the French Open in 2009, and another from two sets to one down against Del Potro in the semifinals of that tournament, which he won in straight sets over Robin Soderling. At Wimbledon that year, he won the longest final ever, eclipsing Andy Roddick 16-14 in the fifth set. But an 18-16 five set record for a player of Federers rarified stature is not what we would expect. Somehow, not infrequently, he is vulnerable in these situations, in contrast to the likes of Pete Sampras, Bjorn Borg and other great champions. Federer doesnt lose these five set matches because of conditioning; his fitness remains astounding. He drops many of these battles in the recesses of his mind.
In any event, Djokovic returned two days later for the Monday night final with Nadal, the fourth year in a row that bad weather had forced the tournament to finish one day late. Nadal had rounded into excellent form after struggling with his game in the early rounds. He started striking the ball stupendously when he took apart Roddick, and then played his best match of the tournament to oust Murray in a third consecutive Grand Slam semifinal meeting. As was the case, Nadal was taking his forehand up the line with more regularity, and his two-handed backhand was clicking well whenever he flattened it out. Nadal took the first two sets with gusto before Murray broke open a 3-3 tie in the third to collect three games in a row.
Murray was coming forward cunningly in the third set, serving-and-volleying often enough to keep Nadal honest, keeping the Spaniard a little off balance. Nadal reestablished his authority in the fourth set, and carved out a comfortable victory, losing his serve only twice in the match. He had played a much better match at the Open than he did against his British adversary at Wimbledon, and his form had improved steadily round by round. The third set against Murray was the only one he dropped in six matches. Nadal had some distance from the five losses he had suffered against Djokovic between Indian Wells in March and Wimbledon in July. He was good natured and self-deprecating about his lack of success against his primary rival leading up to their Flushing Meadows showdown.
And yet, Nadal knew precisely what he was up against once he got into the thick of his battle against Djokovic. He simply could not impose himself the way he once did against the Serbian. He did manage to break Djokovic six times in the four sets, but lost his own serve an astounding eleven times. Nadal put in 96 of 141 first serves for 68%, but he was always under siege. Djokovics returns were hit with unrelenting depth and pace the entire match. Nadal was always rocked back on his heels. In the rallies, the problem was the same as Djokovic maintained excellent length with his shots while Nadal kept dropping his shots alarmingly short, allowing the Serbian to step in, pound away, and take utter control of rallies.
And yet, Nadal did get a few glimpses of daylight. He was up 2-0 in the first set as he fed Djokovic some effective low backhand slices and took away the Serbians rhythm briefly. But Nadal served poorly in the third game, missing five of six first serves. Djokovic kept pushing Nadal back farther behind the baseline. Djokovic held from 15-40 to make it 2-2, then broke the Spaniard again in the fifth game despite a 40-30 lead for the No. 2 seed. But that important 40-30 point was symbolic of Nadals plight the whole match. His shots kept getting shorter and shorter in that exchange until Djokovic ripped a forehand winner crosscourt. Djokovic ran out that set with six games in a row as Nadals apprehension and negativity became increasingly evident.
Once more, Nadal fought ferociously to stamp his authority on the match. He bolted to a 2-0 second set lead at the cost of only three points, but immediately lost a back breaking eight deuce, 22 point third game on his serve. On the penultimate point of that game, a beleaguered Nadal double faulted. Down break point, he seemed to have the rally won when he played a short, low, angled forehand volley. Djokovic chased it down, somehow managed to throw up a short lob, and Nadalperhaps uncomfortable because he never thought Djokovic would reach that ballbungled the overhead.
Djokovic held at love and then broke Nadal at 15 when the Spaniard double faulted at break point. Djokovic moved to 4-2, lost the next two games, but easily broke Nadal at 15 for 5-4, peppering away skillfully at Nadals vulnerable backhand side. When Djokovic held at 15 with a magnificent running forehand down the line that was unmanageable for Nadal, he had established a two set lead, and seemed unstoppable.
Three times in the third set, Djokovic was up a break. He served for the match at 6-5 and reached 30-30, but he missed a backhand down the line and lost that game. In the ensuing tie-break, Djokovic trailed 1-5, made it back to 3-5, but lost the next two points as the crowd cheered on Nadal with fervor. At that stage, a fifth set seemed possible. Djokovic had looked uncomfortable from the middle of the third set. His back was ailing and he had other physical problems as well. After holding serve in a deuce game to start the fourth set, Djokovic called for the trainer and took a medical timeout. That seemed to make all the difference.
He broke Nadal for 2-0 with a scintillating forehand down the line winner off a backhand crosscourt from the Spaniard, and never looked back. Djokovic deliberately decreased the velocity of his serve but Nadal did not adjust his court positioning for his return accordingly. That allowed Djokovic to step in and thump Nadals short returns. Nadal had his only hold for 1-3 in the fourth, but Djokovic collected 12 of 14 points from there to close out his hard fought 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-1 victory. He became the first man since Roddick in 2003 to win the Open after being match point down in the course of the tournament. He established himself as only the sixth man to win three majors (or more) majors in a year, joining Grand Slammer Rod Laver (1969), Jimmy Connors (1974), Mats Wilander (1988), Federer (2004, 2006, 2007) and Nadal (2010) in that exalted club. Moreover, Djokovic is only the eighth man in the Open Era to sweep the Wimbledon-U.S. Open double in a year.
Many wondered why Nadal did not serve with the added velocity and conviction he demonstrated at the 2010 U.S. Open. The view here is that he did not place the same emphasis on the flatter first serve this year. But even if he had served with more power, Djokovic returns too well these days. I doubt it would have made much of a difference if Nadal had served as well as he did in 2010 at the Open. He had made a concerted effort last year to change his grip to get the added speed, but has never served as well since then. I thought he needed to exploit his acutely angled slice serve wide in the Ad court against Djokovic, but he did not do a particularly good job with that.
The women had a good but not a great tournament. Williams won a crucial third round appointment with No. 4 seed Victoria Azarenka, but in retrospect the first signs were there that she was more jittery than usual. She led 6-1, 5-3, 0-40 in that match, but allowed Azarenka to escape from triple match point down. In the following game, Serena had a fourth match point but did not convert. Azarenka stayed with her all the way to 5-5 in the tie-break but fell 6-1, 7-6 (5). Williams had a few lapses against Ana Ivanovic and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, and then had trouble closing out No. 1 seed Caroline Wozniacki. She served for the match at 6-2, 5-3 but was broken. Williams managed to break right back to win, but looked more relieved than exhilarated when it was over.
In the final against the No. 9 seed Stosur, Williams was hard pressed from the outset to set the pace. Serena was slow off the mark, and the cool conditions did not help her. But the primary reason she lost is that Stosur played the match of her life. Stosurs second serve is clearly the best in the business, and her forehand was magnificent. She beat Williams to the punch time and again. Stosur was not willing to allow Williams to dictate the terms of this match and overpower her in relatively short rallies. She asserted herself with real authority and inner conviction. Stosur outplayed Williams across the board. She won 63% of her second serve points while Serena was at only 33% in that critical category. Williams connected with only 35% of her first serves in the opening set.
At the outset, the prevailing view that Williams would win as easily as she had over Stosur in the recent final of Toronto was reinforced. She held serve in the opening game of the match, but she never held the upper hand again. Stosur began pressuring Williams with her fine returns. She exploited her forehand and managed to prevent Serena from attacking her backhand, which has long been her vulnerable side. Stosur went ahead 3-1, had a break point for 4-1, but did not convert. That was a moment when you felt the 27-year-old Australian might falter.
Yet she did not. Stosur held at love for 4-2, then broke Williams at love for 5-2, keeping Serena off balance throughout that game. Stosur held at love for the set. She had collected 12 points in a row to finish off that set, much to the chagrin of her opponent. She made it 13 points in a row when she won the first point of the second set. Serena went down 15-40 in that opening game of the second set, but served an ace. At 30-40, Williams thought she had won the point with a forehand down the line, screaming out Come On! after hitting what she thought would be a winning shot. But Stosur was still chasing the ball and had a play. Williams had celebrated too soon.
Umpire Eva Asderaka correctly determined that the point should be awarded to Stosur. But the scoreboard above said the score was deuce, which was a mistake. And Asderaka waited too long before explaining to the crowd what had happened and why she had given the point (according to the rules) to Stosur, who thus had the break for 1-0. Williams exploited the confusion to the hilt, leading most of the audience to believe that she had been wronged, which was not the case at all. This blatant gamesmanship was Williams at her worst. She proceeded to launch a verbal assault on the umpire, not with expletives, but with unacceptably harsh character attacks. It was horrendous. She was fined $2,000, but was very fortunate that the figure was not much higher given the disdain and vitriol she directed at the umpire.
Williams was clearly hoping to get the crowd in frenzy and to use the commotion to fuel herself toward one of her patented comebacks. But it did not work. Despite breaking back for 1-1, Williams did not build any real momentum. She did go ahead 3-2 on serve and was at 30-30 on Stosurs serve in the sixth game. But Stosur calmly held on for 3-3, and never looked back, completing a four game run to claim her long awaited first major crown 6-2, 6-3.
I would classify this as the biggest upset ever in a U.S. Open womens final. Williams had won two tournaments over the summer, was seeking a fourth Open title, and had not lost a set en route to the championship match. But the fact remains that Stosur was not the No. 9 seed without good reason. To be sure, she had won only two tournaments in her entire career previously, but had been in the final of the French Open in 2010, defeating four time champion Justine Henin and Williams in that tournament. This should be one of those career altering moments, and Stosur has the game and the temperament to win a few more majors in the future.
In the meantime, she can celebrate her historical impact. Stosur is the first Australian woman to win the U.S. Open since Margaret Smith Court in 1973, and the first Aussie to capture a major since Evonne Goolagong won Wimbledon in 1980. Stosur is in some good company, and when she goes to the next major back home Down Under the fans will greet her with a newfound respect and enthusiasm.
In the ultimate analysis, the U.S. Open was a showcase for Djokovic as the master of his universe. He is now 10-1 combined against Nadal and Federer this year. But by toppling as celebrated a champion as Serena Williams, Samantha Stosur was clearly not lost in the shuffle of yet another intriguing U.S. Open.
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