John Isner

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Agnieszka Radwanska, John Isner Bare All for ESPN’s Body Issue 2013

John Isner and Aga Radwanska Bare All for ESPN Body Issue 2013

American tennis player John Isner and Polish women’s star Agnieszka Radwanska are two of the 21 athletes chosen to pose in this year’s ESPN Body Issue, which celebrates the athletic human form.

Below are snippets from their ESPN articles, which hits stands on July 12th.

John Isner

John Isner_800

What do you like about your body?
I’m a tall guy; I’m 6’10″. I’ve done a good job putting some meat on my bones since my freshman year of college. It’s taken a lot of work. I was just under 200 pounds my freshman year; I was 6’8″ and 198 pounds. Now I’m 6’10″, 238 … [B]ack in college, I was a tall, goofy, underdeveloped kid. At 19, I didn’t have a hair on my face. When I was 20, I looked 14. I feel I’ve grown out of that stage. I just turned 28, and, luckily for me, I look like a 28-year-old.

If you could change something about your body, what would it be?
I would like to have a bigger chest, but right now, when I’m playing tennis, is not the time.

Have you ever felt self-conscious about your body?
As a kid, I was a little self-conscious because I was so much taller than everyone … I’ve certainly turned it into a positive, because without my height I probably wouldn’t be as good of a tennis player. It’s a gift, and I’ve made something of it.

Agnieszka Radwanska

Agnieszka Radwanska ESPN Body Issue

If you could change something about your body, what would it be?
My serving shoulder is quite susceptible to injury, so probably that. A bionic arm would be great for tennis!

What is the one workout or exercise you can’t live without?
Sit-ups, for sure. I like to do more than 300 in a single session … But when I do them, I’m thinking, “I wish this were over” or “Now I can eat more chocolate.”

Have you ever felt self-conscious about your body?
I’ve always been much smaller and slighter than my peers. When I played junior tournaments in Poland, I was always playing up an age group, so I was much younger and much smaller than the other kids. The joke used to be that if the wind blew too hard it would blow me away!

What is your one must-have junk food?
You can’t beat a nice, home-cooked Polish meal. But also McDonald’s cheeseburgers or cheesecakes from The Cheesecake Factory. I am proud to say I have tried every single one!

What to Watch in the ATP This Week: Bastad, Stuttgart, Newport Draw Previews

Returning to home soil should raise Sam Querrey

A day after the dust settled on the Wimbledon final, several notable men launch back into action at tournaments on clay and grass.

Bastad:

Top half:  The apparently indefatigable Tomas Berdych surges into Sweden just days after his appearance in the Wimbledon quarterfinals.  This spring, Berdych complained of fatigue caused by an overstuffed schedule, but a substantial appearance fee probably persuaded him to enter this small clay tournament.  Not at his best on clay this year, the top seed should cruise to the quarterfinals with no surface specialist in his area.  Viktor Troicki, his projected quarterfinal opponent, produced some encouraging results at Wimbledon but lacks meaningful clay credentials.

Much more compelling is the section from which Berdych’s semifinal opponent will emerge.  The fourth-seeded Tommy Robredo, a surprise quarterfinalist at Roland Garros, will hope to repeat his victory over the Czech in Barcelona.  On the other hand, Robredo cannot afford to dig the same early holes for himself in a best-of-three format that he did in Paris.  A first-round skirmish between fellow Argentines Carlos Berlocq and Horacio Zeballos features two thorns in Rafael Nadal’s side this year.  While Zeballos defeated the Spaniard to win Vina del Mar in February, Berlocq extended him deep into a third set soon afterward in Sao Paulo.

Bottom half:  The most famous tennis player to visit Stockholm this month will not appear in the Swedish Open.  Following her second-round exit at Wimbledon, Maria Sharapova accompanied boyfriend Grigor Dimitrov on a brief summer vacation before his appearance here.  Dimitrov holds the fifth seed in a wide-open quarter as he aims to thrust an epic Wimbledon loss behind him.  The man who stunned Novak Djokovic on Madrid clay this year has receded in recent weeks, and dirt devil Juan Monaco may test his questionable stamina in the quarterfinals.  Two Italian journeymen, Filippo Volandri and Paolo Lorenzi, look to squeeze out all that they can from their best surface.

Probably the most compelling quarterfinal would emerge in the lowest section of the draw between Spaniards Nicolas Almagro and Fernando Verdasco.  Like Berdych, Verdasco travels to Sweden on short rest after reaching the Wimbledon quarterfinals.  Unlike Berdych, his result there astonished as he suddenly rediscovered his form in a dismal 2013, even extending Andy Murray to five sets.  Verdasco can resuscitate his ranking during the weeks ahead if he builds on that breakthrough, and he has won five of seven meetings from Almagro on clay.  Slumping recently after a fine start to the year, Almagro faces a potential early challenge against Guillermo Garcia-Lopez.

Final: Robredo vs. Verdasco

Stuttgart:

Top half:  Often at his best on home soil, the top-seeded Tommy Haas eyes a rematch of his meeting in Munich this spring with Ernests Gulbis.  The veteran needed three sets to halt the Latvian firecracker that time.  But Marcel Granollers might intercept Gulbis in the first round, relying on his superior clay prowess.  In fact, plenty of quality clay tennis could await in a section that includes Monte Carlo semifinalist Fabio Fognini and Madrid semifinalist Pablo Andujar.  All of these men will have felt grateful to leave the brief grass season behind them as they return to the foundation of their success.

Much less deep in surface skills is the second quarter, headlined by Jeremy Chardy and Martin Klizan.  Despite his Australian Open quarterfinal when the season started, Chardy continues to languish below the elite level, which leaves this section ripe for surprises.  Granted, Klizan took a set from Nadal at Roland Garros, an achievement impressive under any circumstances.  He opens against Nice champion Albert Montanes, who once defeated Roger Federer on clay with a quintessential grinder’s game.  Perhaps Roberto Bautista-Agut will have gained confidence from his four-set tussle with David Ferrer at Wimbledon, or Daniel Gimeno-Traver from his upset of Richard Gasquet in Madrid.

Bottom half:   Never a threat at Wimbledon, Nikolay Davydenko chose to skip the third major this year to preserve his energy for more profitable surfaces.  Davydenko will begin to find out whether that decision made sense in Stuttgart, where he could face fourth seed Benoit Paire in the second round.  Both Paire and the other seed in this quarter, Lukas Rosol, seek to make amends for disappointing efforts at Wimbledon.  Each of them failed to capitalize on the Federer-Nadal quarter that imploded around them.  Another Russian seeking to make a comeback this year, Dmitry Tursunov, hopes to prove that February was no fluke.  Surprising successes at small tournaments that month have not led to anything greater for Tursunov so far, other than an odd upset of Ferrer.

Another player who skipped Wimbledon, Gael Monfils looks to extend a clay resurgence from his Nice final and a five-set thriller at Roland Garros against Berdych.  Two enigmatic Germans surround the even more enigmatic Frenchman, creating a section of unpredictability.  Philipp Kohlschreiber returns to action soon after he retired from a Wimbledon fifth set with alleged fatigue.  While compatriot Florian Mayer also fell in the first round, he had the much sturdier alibi of drawing Novak Djokovic.

Final:  Haas vs. Paire

Newport:

Top half:  Not part of the US Open Series, this cozy grass event at the Tennis Hall of Fame gives grass specialists one last opportunity to collect some victories.  Wildcard Nicolas Mahut could meet top seed Sam Querrey in round two, hoping that the American continues to stumble after an opening-round loss at Wimbledon.  But Querrey usually shines much more brightly on home soil, winning all but one of his career titles there.  A rising American star, Rhyne Williams, and doubles specialist Rajeev Ram look to pose his main pre-semifinal tests.  Ram has shone in Newport before, defeating Querrey in the 2009 final and reaching the semifinals last year with a victory over Kei Nishikori.

Among the most surprising names to reach the second week of Wimbledon was Kenny De Schepper, who outlasted fellow Frenchmen Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet.  De Schepper will try to exploit a section without any man in the top 50, but Igor Sijsling has played better than his ranking recently.  The Australian Open doubles finalist defeated Milos Raonic and won a set from Tsonga on grass this year, while extending Robredo to five sets at Roland Garros.  But Sijsling retired from Wimbledon with the flu, leaving his fitness in doubt.

Bottom half: Currently more dangerous on grass than anywhere else, Lleyton Hewitt reached the Newport final in his first appearance at the tournament last year.  The former Wimbledon champion more recently upset No. 11 seed Stanislas Wawrinka at Wimbledon after defeating Querrey, Dimitrov, and Juan Martin Del Potro at Queen’s Club.  Hewitt holds the fourth seed in Newport, where an all-Australian quarterfinal against Marinko Matosevic could unfold.   A former Newport runner-up in Prakash Amritraj and yet another Aussie in Matthew Ebden add their serve-volley repertoire to a section of contrasting playing styles.

Meeting for the fourth time this year are two struggling Americans, Ryan Harrison and the second-seeded John Isner.  The latter man aims to defend his Newport title as he regroups from a knee injury at the All England Club, but fellow giant Ivo Karlovic could loom in the quarterfinals.  Just back from a serious medical issue, Karlovic opens against Wimbledon doubles semifinalist Edouard Roger-Vasselin.  Potential talents Denis Kudla and Vasek Pospisil also square off, while Adrian Mannarino looks to recapture the form that took him to the brink of a Wimbledon quarterfinal.

Final:  Querrey vs. Hewitt

Jerzy Janowicz Ready to Rise Above the Rest

Jerzy Janowicz at Wimbledon

(June 30, 2013) Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic, and Bernard Tomic have been commonly touted as being the next generation of great champions. If the ATP World Tour was a movie, these three men are believed to be its future leads.

While I do agree these three players have voluminous potential, I believe one young man—Jerzy Janowicz—is ready to rise above them all.

Let’s take a closer look at the 22-year-old Pole’s game to see what separates him not only from the young stars of the ATP World Tour but also from the other giants of tennis.

The most glaring aspect of Janowicz’s game is his imposing serve, which he unloads with herculean strikes and in the process prevents his opponents from grasping even the slightest glimpse of the ball. Janowicz delivers his devastating, heat-sinking missile of a serve from a soaring height. At 6”8’, the Pole is not only one of the tallest players on tour but is actually one of the few players that is able to look over the net and see his opponent’s baseline (you must be 6”7’ to do so).

Janowicz’s serve of course comes with much power but it also possesses ample variation. On the deuce side, as was demonstrated in the Paris Indoor Masters last fall, Janowicz is able to slide his racket head across the outside-edge of the ball producing a side-spin serve that not only moves out and away from his opponents but also lands short in the box making it nearly unreturnable. In terms of his second-serve, Janowicz is able to torpedo up the back of the ball and produce uncanny amounts of topspin making it more of a weapon than a starting shot.

Many big men on tour such as John Isner, Milos Raonic, and Kevin Anderson can absolutely crank their serves and are able to hold quickly and often. This is all fine and dandy until you realize that winning every set in a tiebreaker is not only an unrealistic expectation but really the last thing anybody wants to be doing. Unfortunately enough, this is what a lot of tall guys on tour end up having to do because they simply cannot break serve.

No shortage of individuals have correctly pointed out that big men on tour often find themselves retreating and backtracking on second serves to give themselves more time to set up and execute the return. This puts them into highly defensive positions and exploits their poor movement.

The explanation I find more revealing of the poor returning of big men is much grimmer: These guys have inadequate reactionary prowess and will probably never be anything more than average returners because they need more time than is allotted to hit meaningful returns. If you examine a player like John Isner, you’ll find out quickly that he loves running around his backhand and taking massive cuts on his forehands—granted he has time. Milos Raonic is much the same in that while he may be a big ball striker, he thrives when given time and often crumbles when rushed. This necessity for time during rallies extends to the return of serve.

Janowicz, unlike several of his towering contemporaries, takes a fearless and aggressive stance when returning serve. Against Andy Murray in Paris last year, Janowicz was almost standing on top of the baseline for first serve returns and was inside the baseline on countless second serve returns. Needless to say, Andy Murray’s serve is no pushover. Janowicz is able to establish such a proactive return stance for multiple reasons. One, Janowicz has speedy reactions and is able to anticipate and pick up on where his opponents are serving. Secondly, Janowicz’s forehand and backhand do not have protracted swing paths thus when returning, he is used to producing the abbreviated swings needed to deflect back powerful serves.

Speaking of Janowicz groundstrokes, the Pole’s forehand and backhand are undoubtedly some of the flattest strokes on tour. Janowicz drives through the ball with low-margin, enterprising and authoritative linear strikes. Janowicz’s forehand grip is also one of the most extreme on tour. He uses a full eastern grip approaching a continental grip which helps to explain the flat nature of his groundstrokes. Despite Janowicz’s groundstrokes being very high-risk, he is able to stay in elongated rallies because his swings are short and simple thus he is not going to be breaking down mechanically when under pressure.

The commanding power Janowicz possesses is beautifully contrasted by his out of world feel. The tennis world was shocked when the big man started pulling out the most deft and well-timed of drop shots in Paris last fall. This feel is translated to his net play which is assisted by his extremely long wingspan.

I would also be remiss to exclude the fact that Janowicz possesses absolutely shocking movement for a guy of his height. His court coverage and all-around speed are unbelievable and frankly unprecedented for a guy of his stature.

Ultimately, if you compare Janowicz’s game to the other young phenoms on tour, it becomes evident the Pole’s game has more dimensions. He has more weapons on court than any of the other young talents and certainly can do more than almost all of the big guys. I could go on and on praising the ability of this guy, but I think he’d prefer to prove how good he is on court.

As we head into the second week of Wimbledon, Janowicz is two matches away from a likely semifinal encounter with Andy Murray. If Janowicz does end up facing Murray, expect the Pole to display his full repertoire of shot making backed by a supreme level of confidence for Centre Court on Friday.

Don’t look now, but a week from today, we could very well be watching Jerzy Janowicz step on to Centre Court as a Wimbledon finalist.

Wimbledon Rewind: How the Mighty Have Fallen (And Who Might Reap the Rewards)

Maria Sharapova Wimbledon

A wild Wednesday swept through the All England Club.  We glance back through the avalanche of upsets that rendered some sections of both draws almost unrecognizable as a major.

Roger rolled:  36 straight quarterfinals at majors.  Seven Wimbledon titles in the last ten years.  None of his legendary opponent’s credentials mattered to the 116th-ranked Sergei Stakhovsky, who became the lowest-ranked man to defeat Roger Federer in a decade.  His moment of truth came in the fourth-set tiebreak, as crucial for the underdog as it was for the favorite considering the momentum that Stakhovsky had built by winning the second and third sets.  Federer had started to reassert himself late in the fourth, and he surely would have secured the fifth set if he had reached it.

Unlike Alejandro Falla in 2010, and Julien Benneteau in 2012, Stakhovsky made sure that the Swiss did not survive the crossroads.  A barrage of unreturnable serves early in the tiebreak, a clutch backhand down the line, and a sequence of magnificent lunging volleys brought him to match point on his serve.  Sure enough, Federer saved it with a pinpoint passing shot.  But Stakhovsky kept his composure through what felt like an interminable rally with the champion serving at 5-6 in the tiebreak.  Finally, a Federer backhand floated aimlessly wide as time seemed to stand still on Centre Court, where things like these never happen.

Maria mastered:  Off the WTA radar for years, former prodigy Michelle Larcher de Brito had gained most of her publicity from distinctively elongated yodels.  She entered the main draw as a qualifier, though, which meant that she had accumulated more grass matches than her heralded opponent.  Former Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova has stumbled early in the draw there more often than not in recent years.  Slipping and skidding around the site of her first major breakthrough, she never found her rhythm or range from the baseline in a loss that recalled previous Wimbledon setbacks to Alla Kudryavtseva and Gisela Dulko.

The finish did not come easily for de Brito, as it never does against Sharapova.  The girl who long has struggled with her serve deserves full credit for standing firm through deuce after deuce as five match points slipped past until the sixth proved the charm.

Vika victimized:  Injuring her leg during her first-round victory, world No. 2 Victoria Azarenka never reached her scheduled Centre Court rendezvous with Flavia Pennetta on Wednesday.  Azarenka withdrew from Wimbledon while blasting the All England Club for creating unsafe playing conditions.  She now needs only a retirement or walkover at Roland Garros to complete a career injury Slam, and she will hand the No. 2 ranking back to Sharapova after the tournament.

Jo-Wilfried jolted:  Also on the retirement list in a day filled with injuries, world No. 8 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga handed Ernests Gulbis a ticket to the third round after losing two of the first three sets.  A semifinalist at Roland Garros and at Queen’s Club, Tsonga had seemed one of the tournament’s leading dark horses at the outset.  But Gulbis, the most dangerous unseeded man in the draw, eyes an open route to a quarterfinal against Andy Murray.

Caro curbed:  An Eastbourne semifinal aside, Caroline Wozniacki has struggled without respite since reaching the Indian Wells final in March.  Another early loss thus comes as no great surprise for someone who lost in the first round of Wimbledon last year.  Wozniacki secured just four games from Petra Cetkovska, not the first upset that the Czech has notched on grass.

Tall men toppled:  Their opponents had nothing to do with it, but the tenth-seeded Marin Cilic and American No. 2 John Isner added themselves to the exodus of retirements.  While Isner did not harbor real hopes for a deep run, Cilic reached the final at Queen’s Club barely a week ago and had reached the second week of Wimbledon last year.  Of the top-16 seeds in the bottom half of the men’s draw, only Murray and Nicolas Almagro remain.

Serbs swiped:  More comfortable on slower surfaces, former No. 1s Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic departed in straight sets on Wednesday.  Ivanovic’s loss came at the hands of rising Canadian star Eugenie Bouchard, who may rival Laura Robson (or Larcher de Brito?) for the breakout story of the women’s tournament.  The proudly patriotic Jankovic may take some comfort in the fact that her misfortune came at the hands of a fellow Serb.  Her conqueror, Vesna Dolonc, is the only Serb left in the women’s draw.

Hewitt halted:  The 2002 champion soared to a straight-sets victory over the 11th-seeded Stanislas Wawrinka in the first round, only to tumble back to earth against flashy Jamaican-turned-German journeyman Dustin Brown.  Lleyton Hewitt’s defeat leaves Novak Djokovic as the only former champion and only No. 1 in the Wimbledon men’s draw.

And more…:  The seeded casualties did not stop there.  Fernando Verdasco bounced No. 31 Julien Benneteau in straight sets, No. 22 Sorana Cirstea lost two tiebreaks to Camila Giorgi, and No. 27 Lucie Safarova let a one-set lead get away against another Italian in Karin Knapp.  Nadal’s nemesis, Steve Darcis, also withdrew from Wimbledon with a shoulder injury.

Hanging on tight:  In the women’s match of the day, No. 17 Sloane Stephens narrowly kept her tournament alive against Andrea Petkovic by surviving an 8-6 third set.  Stephens will have a real chance to reach her second semifinal in three 2013 majors with both top-eight seeds gone from her quarter.  Also extended to a third set were No. 19 Carla Suarez Navarro and No. 25 Ekaterina Makarova, the latter of whom overcame rising Spanish star Garbine Muguruza.  Meanwhile, men’s 20th seed Mikhail Youzhny needed five sets to survive Canadian youngster Vasek Pospisil as hardly anyone escaped at least a nibble from the upset bug.

Rising above the rubble:  But a few contenders did.  Extending his winning streak to seven, second seed Andy Murray notched another routine victory as he becomes the overwhelming favorite to reach a second straight Wimbledon final.  Murray’s pre-final draw might pit him against a succession of Tommy Robredo, Youzhny, Gulbis, and Benoit Paire or Jerzy Janowicz—hardly a murderer’s row, although the Gulbis matchup might intrigue.

In the wake of a difficult first-round victory, 2011 champion Petra Kvitova caught a break today when Yaroslava Shvedova withdrew.  Kvitova becomes the only top-eight seed to reach the third round in the bottom half of the women’s draw.  She could face a compelling test from Makarova on Friday, but her most significant competition might come from Stephens or Marion Bartoli in the semifinals.  Struggling mightily for most of the spring amid coaching turmoil, 2007 finalist Bartoli has picked an ideal time to find some form again.  She ousted Christina McHale in straight sets today and has become the highest-ranked woman remaining in her quarter.

Live Updates: Sharapova, Isner, Azarenka Lead Player Injuries on an Unprecedented Day 3 at Wimbledon

Julien Benneteau injury_600

(June 26, 2013) Players, fans, media members, Wimbledon trainers, and even my goldfish are all scratching their heads on this unprecedented injury-filled Wednesday.

Within the first 90 minutes of play, five players had already been forced to withdraw due to injuries sustained on the slippery grass, and more continue throughout the day. As Darren Cahill states, the grass is typically more slippery in the first four days while the back court gets worn down, but the rainy days prior to the start of the tournament haven’t helped the already wet conditions.

Players such as Maria Sharapova are calling the courts “dangerous,” while the All England Club told ESPN this afternoon that the grounds are in “excellent condition.” Clearly, all the injuries, slips and retirements have infiltrated the players’ mindset and many would be wise to be cautious in their movement. Not surprisingly, the conditions have balanced the competition and no top player is safe as seen by Sharapova’s early exit.

Friend of Tennis Grandstand, @MariyaKTennis, tweeted the following:According to @ITF_Tennis, this is believed to be the most singles retirements/walkovers on a single day at a Slam in the Open Era.” So, there we go.

Here is a run down of the player walkovers, as well as various other injuries sustained throughout day three of play.

Retirements

John Isner: In the opening game of his match against Adrian Mannarino, Isner was serving and came down hard, tweaking his left knee. After getting it taped up, Isner tried to continue but ended up retiring only points later.

John Isner
John Isner 2
John Isner 3
Victoria Azarenka: Nobody’s day one tumble looked worse than Azarenka’s against Maria Joao Koehler, where she slipped and twisted her right knee. Despite an MRI showing no structural damage, Azarenka pulled out prior to her match, giving opponent Flavia Pennetta a walkover to the third round.

Victoria Azarenka

Radek Stepanek: A mere six games into his match against Jerzy Janowicz, Stepanek received a medical timeout and heavy strapping on his left thigh. He continued but was forced to retire down 6-2, 5-3.

Radek Stepanek

Marin Cilic: The No. 10 men’s seed pulled out prior to his match against Kenny de Schepper due to a lingering left knee injury which was worsened during his win over Marcos Baghdatis in the opening round.
“I started to have difficulties with my knees during Queen’s. During last week I was feeling it already in practice. Then on Sunday I felt it really bad in my serve … Yesterday it felt it much, much worse. It was difficult for me to put weight on left leg which is where the pain is.”

Steve Darcis: Rafael’s Nadal conquestor also pulled out prior to stepping on court for his second round match. The Belgian said he had hurt his right shoulder when he fell during the first set against Nadal on Monday.

The 29-year-old posted on Twitter: “Had to withdrawn after a win like this!?THE most difficult thing i had to do!!!#triedeverythingtoplaybutdidntwork!!!!”

Yaroslava Shvedova: The Russian-born Kazak was added to the withdrawal list as she pulled out with an arm injury before her match against No. 8 seed Petra Kvitova.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: After losing the second set to Ernests Gulbis, Tsonga got his left knee taped despite there being no clear indication of when the injury happened. His movement seems to be severely hampered and he retired after losing the third set.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Ernests Gulbis

Injuries and Other Tumbles

Maria Sharapova: After taking a pretty bad tumble during her warm-up, Sharapova slipped an additional three times during her match, the last of which required an injury timeout to her left hip. Sharapova repeatedly told the chair umpire that the conditions on court were “dangerous” and these tumbles seemed to have affected her focus and play. Her opponent Michelle Larcher de Brito ended up pulling off the ultimate upset, and in straight sets no less, 6-3, 6-4.

Embedly Powered

Caroline Wozniacki: Despite having taped her right ankle, the 9th seed slipped on the grass twisting her left ankle. She was able to finish out the match but lost to Petra Cetkovska in just over an hour, 6-2, 6-2.

Caroline Wozniacki
Caroline Wozniacki 2

 

Footage of some of the tumbles that Wozniacki, Eugenie Bouchard, Julien Benneteau, Mikhail Youzhny and Ernests Gulbis took.

Embedly Powered

Julien Benneteau: The Frenchman took his own slip against Fernando Verdasco that required a trainer examining his right leg. The 31 seed eventually lost 7-6, 7-6, 6-4.

Julien Benneteau 3

Julien Benneteau
Julien Benneteau 2

John Isner Wins Opening Match at Wimbledon But Needs a Baseline Game

John Isner_600_1

(June 24, 2013) I can’t even fathom how often these words are said. Sometimes it feels like it’s far too much and sometimes it’s nowhere near enough. But that is the way things are and it can’t be ignored any more.

John Isner could be a great tennis player. No, he will never have the movement and defensive prowess of a Nadal or the precision of a Federer. But a player doesn’t need that to be great. Isner has his own strengths and could compete at the top of the game if he could overcome his weaknesses. But we’ve been saying this for 6 years now and there has been little to no improvement.

There is nothing overly fancy to discuss here. This isn’t about utilizing a certain shot or tweaking some other aspect of his game. This is straight-up about being able to play from the baseline with other professional tennis players.

Isner’s game is his serve. Everyone knows that. He has one of the best serves in tennis. It is huge, it is fast, it is accurate, and his kicker is lethal too. He has ridden that serve to tournament victories, Davis Cup upsets, and even a Masters Series final. It has kept him in the top 20 for much of the past five years. But it is nowhere near enough if he wants to reach his full potential.

Just look at today’s first-round match at Wimbledon. Yes, Isner got through in straight sets. And he did it in his normal fashion, winning two tiebreaks. But the fact that the match had two sets go to tiebreaks in the first place means that Isner just wasn’t doing enough.

Isner was playing Evgeny Donskoy, one of the better Challenger-level players but a Challenger-level player nonetheless. Isner, as a top 20 player, should run over him. This shouldn’t be a close match. And Isner ran away with the first set in good form. But he couldn’t earn a break in the next two sets.

Isner’s problems are even more than that though. It isn’t only that he can’t break even poor servers; it’s how the rallies go along as Isner competed in them. Isner couldn’t win points from the baseline. His serve was excellent. When he could follow up a serve with a big forehand it was lethal. But otherwise, Isner was less than mediocre in rallies.

This is the fact and it must be dealt with—Isner, at his current level, cannot consistently win rallies from the baseline against even Challenger-level players, let alone better players. He needs to find some semblance of a baseline game if he wants to compete with better players. You just cannot win matches when it is a near-foregone conclusion that any rally longer than 5 shots will end with you dumping a ball into the net.

Isner needs more than just rally shots. He needs to be able to hit shots from the baseline that can allow him to win points. Then again, he can often just barely hit shots that keep him in the rally.

It is a little unfair to criticize like this as we don’t know exactly what goes on in his practices, but it is clear that if he is working on this that it’s not very effective. He needs to overhaul his game completely to be able to compete or he needs to utilize his strengths to mask his lack of a baseline game. He is very good at the net and his long wingspan is hard to pass. Maybe he can start chipping and charging on return just to help him get into those games. He is a very talented player and he has options as to how to get even better. But he has to do something because the status quo just isn’t enough for him right now.

Snakes in the Grass: Previewing the Wimbledon 2013 Dark Horses

Sabine Lisicki has defeated five top-ten women in her last three Wimbledon appearances.

With the Wimbledon draw just a week ahead, the time has arrived to scan the ATP and WTA rankings in search of dark horses who could grab some unexpected attention.  This survey features only players outside the top 20 at the start of the grass season, likely to meet an opponent of greater note in the first week.  On any given day, these snakes in the grass could strike for an upset or two.

ATP:

John Isner:  Forever famous for his Wimbledon epic against Nicolas Mahut, Isner never has fared as well there as top-ranked compatriot Sam Querrey.  His lack of impact surprises, considering a playing style that should flourish on grass with a nearly impenetrable serve and a preference for short points.  Isner has languished in a slump for most of 2013, but he nearly reached the second week at Roland Garros with another valiant run.  The American would benefit from exchanging his pattern of endless epics for some more efficient first-week victories, conserving his energy early in the fortnight.

Grigor Dimitrov:  Reaching the third round of a major for the first time at Roland Garros, the Bulgarian rising star tends to perform better at non-majors than majors.  But Dimitrov took Tsonga to the brink of a final set at Wimbledon two years ago, and he has threatened every member of the Big Four this year except Roger Federer, whom he has not faced.  His combination of an explosive first serve with dexterity around the net could shine on the grass.  Less impressive is his movement and his ability to convincingly take care of business against overmatched opposition.

Julien Benneteau:  He came closer than anyone last year to knocking off eventual champion Roger Federer at Wimbledon, snatching the first two sets before the match slipped away.  Benneteau has struggled to win any matches at all in singles since March, not long after he upset Federer in Rotterdam.  His doubles expertise could help on a court that rewards net-rushers, and he reached the second week in 2010.  Formidable early draws have stunted his progress in most Wimbledon appearances, but Benneteau has lost to only one opponent outside the top eight there since 2005.

Lukas Rosol:  His presence on this list should need little explanation.  Had Rosol won no matches at all after defeating Rafael Nadal in the second round last year, he still would merit a mention.  As it stands, he built upon that upset to rise from the edge of the top 100 to well inside the top 50.  Rosol faces the pressure of defending something meaningful for the first time, and he will need to insulate himself from the inevitable media scrutiny.  He often brings out his best tennis against the best while growing careless or unfocused against the journeymen of the Tour.

Ernests Gulbis:  Slinging ferocious forehands and controversial comments indiscriminately, the Latvian shot-maker once again has become someone intriguing to watch.  Gulbis upset Tomas Berdych in the first round of Wimbledon last year, and he twice has won sets from Nadal this year.  More distant achievements include victories over Federer and Novak Djokovic, showing that no elite opponent can feel safe when Gulbis finds his groove.  He may struggle to stay in that groove in the best-of-five format, perhaps a reason why his greatest headlines have come at Masters 1000 events.  Still, grass usually rewards the Jekyll-and-Hyde mixture of overwhelming power and deft finesse that Gulbis can wield.

Feliciano Lopez:  The Spaniard’s best tennis lies well behind him, and he accumulated a losing record this season through the end of Roland Garros.  Lopez has reached three Wimbledon quarterfinals behind his lefty serve-volley style, though, the rarity of which can unsettle younger opponents.  His notable victims there include Andy Roddick and Marat Safin, as well as Tim Henman in his last match on home soil.  Keep an eye on Lopez if he draws a relatively passive baseliner or grinder such as David Ferrer, who long has struggled against him on fast surfaces.

Daniel Brands:  Like Rosol, Brands typically plays to the level of the competition.  He lost resoundingly to Jan Hajek one week before he thrust Nadal to the brink of a two-set deficit at Roland Garros.  Wimbledon marks the scene of his greatest accomplishment, a second-week appearance in 2010, although he lost in the first round of qualifying each of the two subsequent years.  Beware of getting into a fifth set against Brands, who shares Isner’s asymmetry between a massive serve and a woeful return.  That stark contrast leaves him vulnerable against anyone and dangerous to everyone.

WTA:

Ekaterina Makarova:  Only one woman has defeated both Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka in 2012-13:  not Maria Sharapova, not Li Na, not Petra Kvitova, but Ekaterina Makarova.  This fiery Russian also won Eastbourne on grass as a qualifier in 2010, her only title to date.  Her lefty serve swings wide in the ad court effectively on this surface, a valuable asset on break points.  Makarova’s doubles expertise has honed her net talents to a higher level than most of the women ranked near her, and she has proved that she can excel at majors by reaching two Australian Open quarterfinals.

Sabine Lisicki:  Four or five years ago, Lisicki looked like a future Wimbledon champion.  She honed the best serve in the women’s game outside the Williams sisters, even outdueling Venus to win a Charleston title.  In three Wimbledon appearances from 2009-12, Lisicki reached the quarterfinals or better every time and even notched her first major semifinal there in 2011.  An impressive list of marquee upsets in those appearances includes Maria Sharapova, Li Na, Caroline Wozniacki, and Marion Bartoli.  Somewhat like Gulbis in her ability to combine first-strike power with the finesse of delicate drop shots, Lisicki has struggled to stay healthy long enough to develop momentum and consistency.

Tamira Paszek:  A hideous 1-12 this season, Paszek has won barely any matches since last August but still held a seed at Roland Garros.  She defends the majority of her total rankings points during the short grass season, when she won Eastbourne and reached a second straight Wimbledon quarterfinal last year.  The good news is that Paszek rebounded from a similar sequence of futility at this time in 2012 to record those excellent results.  The bad news is that the pressure will lie heavily on her with the penalty so great for a misstep at either event.

Venus Williams:  Once a champion, always a champion, and never more so than at the greatest bastion of tennis tradition.  Venus will appear in this type of article before every Wimbledon that she plays, no matter her current form.  To be sure, that current form is far from impressive with losses this spring to Olga Puckhova, Laura Robson, and Urszula Radwanska.  Venus wins many fewer matches than she once did on her poise and experience alone, and she probably cannot ration her energy efficiently enough to survive deep into the fortnight.  But nobody wants to face that serve or that wingspan on grass, for one never knows when an aging champion will catch fire.

Laura Robson:  Combined with a junior Wimbledon title, two compelling efforts against Maria Sharapova on home soil suggest that the top British women’s talent could rise to the occasion.  Robson has proved twice in the last twelve months that she can shine at majors, upsetting Kim Clijsters to reach the second week of the US Open and outlasting Petra Kvitova in a nail-biting if ugly epic in Melbourne.  Since the serve plays a heightened role on grass, she must limit the double faults that have grown too frequent this year.  Robson never lacks for courage or belief, often aggressive to the point of reckless.

Zheng Jie:  If she had finished off Serena Williams in the first week of Wimbledon last year, the trajectory of women’s tennis since then would have followed a completely different course.  As it was, Zheng took Serena to 8-6 in the final set, displaying how well her compact swings and crisp footwork suit the low, variable bounces of the grass.  This less intuitive model for surface success than heavy serves and first strikes carried her to the Wimbledon semifinals in 2008.  Like Benneteau, Zheng has found herself saddled with some extremely challenging draws and has lost to few sub-elite opponents there.

Tsvetana Pironkova:  Two years ago, it seemed that Pironkova existed solely to prevent Venus Williams from winning another Wimbledon title.  The willowy Bulgarian defeated Venus in consecutive Wimbledons by identical scores, and she even came within a set of the final in 2010.  Proving that success no anomaly, Pironkova extended Sharapova to a final set last year.  A glance at her game reveals no clear reason why she enjoys grass so much.  Pironkova owns a vulnerable serve and little baseline firepower, earning her living with court coverage and touch.  Her Wimbledon feats show that counterpunchers can find ways to thrive on an offensively oriented surface.

When the Red Dust Settles: Favorite Memories of Roland Garros 2013

We have reached the end of the red brick road for another year.

Matches and events fly past in the fortnight of a major too quickly to absorb everything that happens.  But, now that the red dust has settled, here are the memories that I will take from Roland Garros 2013.

Gael Monfils and the Paris crowd making each other believe that he could accomplish the impossible, and then Monfils accomplishing it.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands looking completely lost at the start of her match against Li Na and then gradually finding her baseline range, one rain delay at a time.

The courteous handshake and smile that Li gave her conqueror despite the bitter defeat.

Shelby Rogers justifying her USTA wildcard by winning a main-draw match and a set from a seed.

Grigor Dimitrov learning how to reach the third round of a major, and learning that what happens in Madrid stays in Madrid.

Bojana Jovanovski teaching Caroline Wozniacki that what happens in Rome doesn’t stay in Rome.

Ernests Gulbis calling the Big Four boring, and former top-four man Nikolay Davydenko calling him back into line.

Petra Kvitova and Samantha Stosur settling their features into resigned masks they underachieved yet again at a major.

John Isner winning 8-6 in the fifth and then coming back the next day to save 12 match points before losing 10-8 in the fifth.

Virginie Razzano winning twice as many matches as she did here last year.

Tommy Haas dominating a man fourteen years his junior and then coming back the next day to save a match point and outlast Isner when the thirteenth time proved the charm.

Benoit Paire losing his mind after a code violation cost him a set point, and Kei Nishikori quietly going about his business afterwards.

Ana Ivanovic telling journalists that “ajde” is her favorite word, and sympathizing with Nadal for the scheduling woes.

Tommy Robredo crumpling to the terre battue in ecstasy after a third consecutive comeback from losing the first two sets carried him to a major quarterfinal.

Sloane Stephens calling herself one of the world’s most interesting 20-year-olds.

Nicolas Almagro swallowing the bitter taste of a second straight collapse when opportunity knocked to go deep in a major.

Victoria Azarenka reminding us that it is, after all, rather impressive to win a match when your serve completely fails to show up.

Fernando Verdasco clawing back from the brink of defeat against Janko Tipsarevic to the brink of an upset that would have cracked his draw open—only to lose anyway.

Alize Cornet pumping her fist manically in one game and sobbing in despair the next.

Mikhail Youzhny remembering to bang a racket against his chair instead of his head.

Francesca Schiavone catching lightning in a bottle one more time in Paris, just when everyone thought that she no longer could.

Stanislas Wawrinka and Richard Gasquet putting on a master class of the one-handed backhand.

Svetlana Kuznetsova walking onto Chatrier to face Angelique Kerber and playing like she belonged there as a contender of the present, not a champion of the past.

Roger Federer joining alter ego @PseudoFed on Twitter, and fledgling tweeter Tomas Berdych telling one of his followers that his most challenging opponent is…Tomas Berdych.

Agnieszka Radwanska proving that her newly blonde hair wasn’t a jinx, but that major quarterfinals still might be.

Jo-Wifried Tsonga showing us his best and worst in the course of two matches, illustrating why he could win a major and why he has not.

Sara Errani looking the part of last year’s finalist while tying much bigger, stronger women up in knots.

Novak Djokovic overcoming a significant personal loss midway through the tournament and standing taller than ever before at the one major that still eludes him.

Jelena Jankovic completing a dramatic come-from-behind win and a dramatic come-from-ahead loss against two top-ten women in the same tournament.

David Ferrer, the forgotten man, reaching his first major final at age 31 in a reward for all of those years toiling away from the spotlight.

Maria Sharapova staying true to her uncompromising self and ending a match in which she hit 11 double faults with—an ace.

Serena Williams consigning her last trip here to the dustbin of history.

Rafael Nadal collapsing on the Chatrier clay just as ecstatically the eighth time as he did the first.

Staying up until 5 AM to watch a certain match, and wanting to stay up longer for one more game or one more point.

Looking forward to jumping back on the rollercoaster at the All England Club.

Roland Garros Rewind: Djokovic, Nadal Thrive; Haas, Isner Thrill; Sharapova, Azarenka Survive

Yes, I remember you well.

The remaining second-week lineups fell into place on Saturday at Roland Garros.  Here’s a look back at the studs and duds.

ATP:

Match of the day:  Returning to the battlefield after playing an 8-6 fifth set yesterday, John Isner outdid himself in the effort department.  The American giant rallied from two sets down against Tommy Haas, saving twelve match points in the fourth set.  Isner even claimed a 4-1 lead in the fifth set as a second comeback in two days from losing the first two sets loomed.  Somehow managing to break and saving a match point at 4-5, Haas hung on until Isner finally cracked at 8-8.  The thirteenth match point proved the charm.

Unsurprising surprise of the day:  Also back in action a day after an 8-6 fifth set, Janko Tipsarevic predictably responded less impressively than Isner did.  The eighth seed fell to Mikhail Youzhny in straight sets.  Whoever thought that Youzhny would reach the second week of Roland Garros and have a real chance at a quarterfinal berth deserves a glass of Champagne’s finest.

Nice story of the day:  Overshadowed this tournament by someone else from Switzerland, as he usually is, Stanislas Wawrinka posted a solid four-set win over the dangerous Jerzy Janowicz.  Wawrinka had not known whether he would participate in Roland Garros this year because of a leg injury, so he will feel confident that he made the right decision.

Scandal of the day:  A set point against Kei Nishikori awaited Benoit Paire—or so it seemed.  Umpire Enric Molina took away the opportunity with a coaching code violation, resulting in a point penalty.  An infuriated Paire argued his case at length, but Molina appeared to have ruled correctly.  Probably spurred by the incident, Paire bludgeoned his way to win the set anyway, although he lost the match.

Gold star:  Like fellow Head endorser Maria Sharapova, Novak Djokovic always fancies a taste of revenge.  He ravaged Grigor Dimitrov’s serve without mercy just weeks after finding it nearly invulnerable in Madrid.  Toppled in three sets that time, Djokovic lost just seven games here.

Silver star:  Baby steps for Rafael Nadal, who looked far from his overwhelming King of Clay self again but at least advanced in straight sets.  Nadal had thrashed third-round opponent Fabio Fognini in Rome.  This match proved much more competitive but never really in doubt once he survived a slow start to win a first-set tiebreak.

Stat of the day:  The twelve match points saved by Isner were the most ever saved by any man in a match at a major.

American men in Paris:  None reach the second week.  RIP, this category.

Question of the day:  Djokovic’s fourth-round opponent, Philipp Kohlschreiber has advanced routinely to this stage and upset the Serb here in 2009.  Can he make things interesting on Monday?

WTA:

Match of the day:  Just like Monfils-Berdych, the Stosur-Jankovic duel of veteran clay specialists lived up to its billing.  Jankovic repeated her Stuttgart upset of the world No. 9 after losing the first set and closing out a long, tight decider.  Her clay revival this year should lead to her first major quarterfinal in recent memory,…

Surprise of the day:  …although Jamie Hampton might have something to say about it.  The small American who gave Victoria Azarenka a scare in Melbourne bundled Petra Kvitova out of the tournament. Facing little resistance early, Hampton needed to navigate a long second-set tiebreak to prevent the advantage shifting back to the favorite in the third set.  Kvitova has lost before the quarterfinals at three straight majors.

Nice story of the day:  Perhaps the nicest story of the tournament, in fact.  2010 champion and 2011 finalist Francesca Schiavone returns to the second week in Paris despite a disappointing season, finishing off top-ranked Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli without much ado.

Top seeds show frailty…:  Victoria Azarenka barely could hold serve at all for a set-plus against Alize Cornet, dropping a break at love to concede the first set to someone with a 24-match losing streak against top-30 opponents.  After an emphatic first set, Maria Sharapova suddenly lost the plot and fell behind by a double break to the persistent but faded Zheng Jie amid serving struggles.

…but finish strong:  Once adversity struck, both top women showed their spine.  World No. 3 Azarenka raced through a 6-1 third set, while world No. 2 Sharapova swept six of the last seven games.  If you want to score a huge upset, you cannot afford to labor as consistently on serve as Cornet and Zheng did.  That is too much additional pressure stacked on top of the pressure created by the circumstances.

Adieu, les bleues:  Barely wobbling through her two previous matches, Bartoli followed Cornet to the exit as the last Frenchwomen faded from the draw in the first week.  Credit to each of them for fighting bard, but France simply is not a first-tier tennis power in the women’s game.

Stat of the day:  Sharapova converted all eight of her break points against Zheng, who held serve exactly once in the match.

Americans in Paris:  Who would have thought that the stars and stripes would supply a quarter of the women’s final sixteen on the clay of Roland Garros?  In addition to Hampton and Serena Williams, Bethanie Mattek-Sands rallied from losing the first set for the second straight match to dominate clay specialist Paula Ormaechea late.  Sloane Stephens took advantage of a soft draw to repeat her second-week result here from last year.  Now 8-1 at majors and 11-1 at non-majors, Stephens saves her best for when it means the most.

Questions of the day:  Can Schiavone flap the visibly flappable Azarenka on Monday?  And how many women’s quarterfinalists will the USA produce?  All but Serena will be underdogs next round.

 

Roland Garros Rewind: Federer, Tsonga, Serena, Errani Shine on Friday

Roger Federer tracked down everything that an old thorn in his side threw at him.

A sweeping slate of second-round and third-round matches filled the slate on Friday as the tournament caught up from a rainy Thursday.  Here is a look back at the rapidly unfolding action.

ATP:

Match of the day:  Banished from the televised courts, Fernando Verdasco and Janko Tipsarevic continued their history of fascinating meetings with a five-set sequence of twists and turns.  Tipsarevic appeared to have seized control for good when he dominated the second set after winning a tight first-set tiebreak.  To his credit, Verdasco battled all the way back and took the eighth seed to 8-6 in the fifth.  Vulnerable all year, Tipsarevic found just enough courage to ward off the massive collapse:

Comeback of the day.  Tommy Robredo did it again.  Not known for flamboyance or drama, the Spanish veteran did what his compatriot Verdasco could not and charged back from two sets down to halt home hero Gael Monfils.  Fatigue from an overstuffed schedule may have hampered Monfils late in the match, for Robredo closed out the fifth set with surprising ease.

Surprise of the day:  Third-ranked Serb Viktor Troicki had struggled to string together victories all season, so an upset of the tenth-seeded Marin Cilic on Troicki’s worst surface raised eyebrows.  (Of course, clay is Cilic’s worst surface as well.)  The key to this match may have come as early as the first-set tiebreak, which Troicki saved multiple set points to win 14-12 before dominating thereafter.

Tale of two Spaniards:  Nine sets played, nine sets won for—not Rafael Nadal, but David Ferrer.  None of his first three opponents have tested the second-ranked Spaniard, whereas his top-ranked countryman has dropped the first set in both of his first two matches.  Nadal, who comes back to face Fabio Fognini tomorrow, looked strangely uncomfortable for much for his four-set victory against Martin Klizan despite his outstanding clay campaign.

Gold star:  Tremors rippled through Court Philippe Chatrier when Roger Federer lost his opening service game, a departure from his routs in the first two rounds.  Against chronic nemesis Julien Benneteau, however, Federer swiftly buckled down to business and never looked seriously troubled thereafter.

Silver star:  Top-ranked Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga continued his bulletproof progress with a surprisingly routine dismissal of compatriot Jeremy Chardy.  Tsonga lost only eight games in staying on track to meet Federer in the quarterfinals, a rematch of their Australian Open meeting.

Americans in Paris:  Winless in five-set matches, Ryan Harrison let a two-set lead escape him as his 2013 woes persist.  At least his disintegration benefited fellow American John Isner, who snapped his own four-match losing streak in final frames.  Less fortunate was the top-ranked American Sam Querrey, falling in five sets to Gilles Simon after coming within a tiebreak of victory.  Also gone on Friday was Jack Sock, overmatched by Tommy Haas in a competitive but rarely suspenseful straight-setter.

Question of the day:  Does the impressive form displayed by Tsonga and Ferrer suggest that they can challenge Federer more than they usually do?

WTA:

Match of the day:  Overcoming an 0-4 record against Varvara Lepchenko, Angelique Kerber withstood 46 winners from her fellow lefty to prevail 6-4 in the third.  Lepchenko’s history of strong results on clay underscores the significance of Kerber’s victory as she reached the second week for the fifth straight major.  Up next for her is 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, who recently played a thriller against her in Madrid.

Comeback of the day:  Pounding more winners in two sets than Lepchenko did in three, Mariana Duque-Marino served for both sets against Marion Bartoli.  The top-ranked Frenchwoman spent much of the match with her back to the wall, as she did in the first round, but she edged through a first-set tiebreak and swept the last four games of the second set to survive.

Surprise of the day:  In a day with no notable upsets, a match between two unseeded players produced the greatest surprise.  Brussels champion Kaia Kanepi failed to exploit a crumbling section of the draw, instead adding to the uncertainty caused by the exits of Li Na and Yaroslava Shvedova.  Having won barely a single match on red clay this year, Stefanie Voegele ousted last year’s quarterfinalist 8-6 in the third as part of an excellent day for Swiss players.

Gold star:  Top seed Serena Williams has dropped just six game in six sets here, extending the longest winning streak of her career.  Her momentum and aura has built to the point where many opponents seem to lose hope before they even take the court.  What a difference a year makes.

Silver star:  All three Italian women in action today prevailed.  Only slightly authoritative than Serena here, Sara Errani bageled imposing server Sabine Lisicki in a demonstration of how her clay-court skills can compensate for immense gaps in power.  Less persuasive was second-ranked Italian Roberta Vinci, who weathered a second-set lull to survive in three.  But the brightest headline of the day came from 2010 champion Francesca Schiavone, able to edge seeded opponent Kirsten Flipkens to reach the brink of the second week.

Most improved:  After she had lost the first set in each of her first two matches, Carla Suarez Navarro navigated through her third more routinely.  Perhaps Nadal should take a page from his countrywoman’s book.

Fastest finish:  Defending champion Maria Sharapova seemed to spend more time warming up before and interviewing after the completion of her second-round match than she needed to play the match itself.  About ten minutes of live action sufficed to move Sharapova past Eugenie Bouchard, although she needed a massive second serve to save a break point that would have leveled the second set.

Question of the day:  Which former champion has a better chance to upset a top-eight seed, Kuznetsova against Kerber or Ana Ivanovic against Agnieszka Radwanska?

 

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