Roland Garros…Toujours Différent (Always Different)

By Cheryl Jones and Mark Winters

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Last year Roland Garros took place almost four months later than it usually does. Still following a newly found theme, in 2021 it began a week later than the tried-and-true last week of May, first week in June schedule. Of course, the date changes had nothing to do with l’art de vivre pleinement (the art of living life to the fullest). The reason for both delays was, surprise, surprise – COVID 19.

This year’s May 30 – June 13 extravaganza at Stade Roland Garros was, as always is the case in Paris, different. Our thoughts on the 125th version of the Terre Battue championships will follow.

Unexpected Double
The last time a woman from Czechoslovakia collected the Roland Garros Singles title was in 1981 when Hana Mandlíková defeated Sylvia Hanika of Germany, 6-2, 6-4. (As an aside, Martina Navratilova, who was the champion in 1982 and 1984 no longer represented Czechoslovakia, having become a US citizen the year Mandlíková triumphed. The game of musical countries [instead of chairs] continued when Mandlíková on New Year’s Day 1988 became an Australian citizen.)

Barbora Krejčíková holding Roland Garros trophy
Barbora Krejčíková kisses her Singles trophy. Photo: Frank Molter

Barbora Krejčíková was born December 18, 1995, in Brno where it is now known as the Czech Republic, 14 years after the Mandlíková victory. She was only four the last time the same woman won the singles and doubles in Paris. Mary Pierce, (who is Canadian, French, and American), pulled off the challenging double in 2000 taking the singles and partnering with Martina Hingis of Switzerland for her doubles win.

Krejčíková secured her place in the record books by downing Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia 6-1, 2-6, 6-4 in the singles trophy round on Saturday then she returned the next day to win the doubles title with countrywoman Kateřina Siniaková, who is from Hradec Kralove. The duo romped past Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Iga Świątek, the entertaining US-Polish tandem, 6-4, 6-2.

Women's doubles finals 2021 Roland Garros
Krejčíková backed up her Singles win by taking the Doubles title with Kateřina Siniaková. Photo: Roger Parker

For Pavlyuchenkova, who was playing Roland Garros for the 14th time, it was almost a “Welcome Home” remembrance. In 2011, she was a quarterfinalist losing to Francesca Schiavone, the delightful Italian who was the surprising tournament winner the previous year. Nineteen at the time, the now Moscow – Nice, France resident remembered being emotional against Schiavone, being here, there, and everywhere. Looking back, she said, “I was too young. I didn’t know how to handle it.”

At the time, her future seemed to be promising, but since then her career has meandered. Her results lacked consistency. There were times when Pavlyuchenkova’s confidence dropped so low that she thought about leaving the game.

After the final, she was very open. She discussed having begun to work with a sports psychologist before the Madrid tournament this year. “I seriously felt a little sometimes desperate…Then I just said to myself, ‘You know what, I want to try everything. Like I want to improve my mentality. I want to improve my physical condition, my game, like everything.’ She just helps me to be myself on the court, as well, open up a little bit of my strong points, and also being myself off the court as well. That also helps a lot.” She added, “I didn’t expect that I would really feel so much better on the court”. But she did even though she lost.

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 2021 Roland Garros final
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova playing the final. Photo: Jean Catuffe

For 48 years (1968 until 2016) the women’s results in Paris pretty much followed form. Beginning in 2017, three of the past women’s champions have been unseeded, with Krejčíková now becoming a member of the “Expect the Unexpected” group.

Most players focus on singles. It is their ticket to more earnings, fame, and yet more endorsements. Ashleigh Barty of Australia and Elise Mertens of Belgium are two women who smoothly combine singles and doubles play. Krejčíková and Siniaková have been impressive playing both, too.

In 2013, they captured all the Junior Girls’ Slam titles except Australia. On the adult level, they earned a Roland Garros and Wimbledon doubles title in 2018 to go with this year’s triumph. But Krejčíková is even more versatile. Between 2019 and ’21 she has owned the Australian Open Mixed Doubles championship, partnering with Rajeev Ram of the US initially then, with Croatian Nikola Mektic in ’20 and with Ram again this year in the trophy rounds.

More and more players look to add to their games – their mental game, that is. Pavlyuchenkova pointed out that she has sought professional advice. Świątek has talked about the guidance she has received. Krejčíková admitted reaching out to her sports psychologist before every match, beginning with her 6-2, 6-0 round of 16 victory over Sloane Stephens of the US. In her post-match press conference after the singles final, she remarked, “…why so many players are first Grand Slam champions here, I don’t know…” and then added, “…it’s something I always dream about, winning here my first doubles, then mixed ones. Now I was just telling myself it would be really nice if I can get the Grand Slam in all three categories.”

International Tennis Hall of Famer Jana Novotna was also born in Brno. Prior to her death in 2017, the 1998 Wimbledon champion was Krejčíková coach and mentor. After defeating Pavlyuchenkova, the new Paris winner said, “She (Novotna) is watching over me”.

Corcovado Impressive
Rio (or more properly Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) is an eye-catching location…And there are many reasons besides Ipanema Beach to visit the area. Corcovado (Portuguese meaning Hunchback), a mountain in the Tijuca Forest national park which is slightly less than nine miles away from the beach, is one of them. The setting is made even more spectacular by “Christ the Redeemer”, the 125-foot-tall statue of Jesus (called one of the Seven Wonders of the New World) that towers over the surroundings.

At Roland Garros, Novak Djokovic resembled the “Corcovado” statue, not once but twice. The first time was in his 3-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-2 semifinal victory over Rafael Nadal. In four hours, the Serbian handed the Spaniard only his third loss in 108 Roland Garros appearances. It was such an enthralling contest that tournament officials announced during the third set tie-break that the nightly curfew would be ignored, and fans could stay until the match concluded. (Mary Carillo, the delightfully glib, television commentator offered, “Oh, this is so French…)

Sculpture Rafael Nadal 2021 Roland Garros
The new sculpture of Rafael Nadal by Spanish artist Jordi Díez Fernandez to celebrate Nadal’s 13 victories. Photo: Roland Garros

His semifinal win over Nadal at Roland Garros increased Djokovic’s lead in their series to 30-28, with it happening twice in Paris. Following the encounter, Nadal said, “Have been amazing, the support, no? I can’t thank enough the feelings. I have been super tired some moments, but the crowd gave me some energy to keep going, no? Yeah, it’s super emotional for me to feel the love of the people in the most important place of my tennis career, without a doubt. So, thanks a lot to them.”

The winner was very candid saying, “Definitely the best match that I was part of ever in Roland Garros for me, and top three matches that I ever played in my entire career, considering quality of tennis, playing my biggest rival on the court where he has had so much success and has been the dominant force in the last 15 plus years, and the atmosphere which was completely electric. For both players, a lot of support. Just amazing”.

There is only one Corcovado, but being the competitor he is, it took the 34-year-old Djokovic four hours and 11 minutes to down Stefanos Tsitsipas, his 22-year-old Greek opponent, 6-7, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 in the final. The triumph was his 19th major championship victory and he happily joined Rod Laver and Roy Emerson, the iconic Australians, who both won each of the Slams twice in their careers.

Novak Djokovic winning 2021 Roland Garros
Novak Djokovic acknowledges his victory. Photo: Frank Molter

Having already received applause for his performance on court, Tsitsipas earned acclaim after he announced on Instagram late Sunday night that shortly before the final, he learned his grandmother, Stavroula Tsitsipas, who lived in the village of Proasti, had passed away. He explained, “Five minutes before entering the court my very beloved grandmother lost her battle with life. A wise woman whose faith in life, and willingness to give and provide can’t be compared to any other human being that I have ever met.”

He continued, “It’s important to have more people like her in this world. Because people like her make you come alive. They make you dream. I would like to say that regardless of the day, circumstances, or situation, this is entirely dedicated to her, and only her. Thank you for raising my father. Without him this wouldn’t have been possible.”

(Any family death is significant but, in this case, the loss was even more momentous. Stavroula Tsitsipas had been losing her eyesight for some time. During the past five years she could no longer watch her grandson compete on television, but she listened to his matches. Their bond, which was always close, became stronger as her life winded down.)

Christ the Redeemer
Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro. Photo: PhotoLouis

“Christ the Redeemer” stands atop that granite mountain – Corcovado – and it often seemed that Djokovic was replicating the statue. Once the last point was played in each of his matches, he began his “Please Love Me…” vaudeville act standing in the court thrusting his arms wide, begging like a former government leader for thunderous applause. He then moved a finger to his ear and went into his “I can’t hear you” act.

Player appeal is very individualized. There is no question that Djokovic is bright and at times, can be charming. Unfortunately, his insecurity regularly takes over and becomes a self-indulging off-putting pantomime that serves to discredit his talent. As Pete Sampras, the shy Hall of Famer always said – I let my racquet do the talking…Novak Djokovic should consider becoming more Sampras-like.

(Following the epic match, it can’t be overlooked that Djokovic walked over to a youngster sitting courtside in the first row, talked with him a moment, and gave him a hug and then the racquet he had just used to win the match. Later the winner said that the boy had been coaching him and he thought it “was very cute”.)

What Are The Odds?
Simply because of the competitive magnitude, the majors are a playground for upsets. Still, who would have ever predicted that a couple of “Veterans” – Roger Federer and Serena Williams – would depart in the same round. As it turned out, it wasn’t a one-off because two “Youngsters” – Iga Świątek and Coco Gauff – were later ambushed.

Roger Federer 2021 Roland Garros
Roger Federer testing his knees against Dominik Koepfer. Photo: Jean Catuffe

Federer had played two tournaments prior to Roland Garros. Of course, he had had two right knee operations and been away from competition for a year and a half, so his play was a bit tentative. Seeded No. 8, and at 39, the oldest man in the tournament, he was challenged by Dominik Koepfer, a German who played intercollegiate tennis at Tulane University, 7-6, 6-7, 7-6, 7-5 in the third round. The three-hour, 39-minute contest was a physical test for his tender right knee, and it led the widely respected champion to withdraw from the tournament. With that he gave Italian, Matteo Berrettini, the No. 9 seed, a fourth-round walkover.

(Federer discussed the reasons for his decision after which some “Sages of the Game” reacted righteously. Former Australian Open Tournament Director, Paul McNamee, explained that the 20-time Grand Slam champion was not in a candy store where he could pick and choose when he wanted to play. Former US Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe evidencing true wisdom offered that he understood the reason but didn’t like it and added it is bad for the tournament because someone will now play one less match.)

Serena Williams playing 2021 Roland Garros
Serena Williams in her fourth round match. Photo: Laurent Zabulon

Williams, the No. 7 seed still in lukewarm pursuit of tying Margaret Court’s sacred 24 Grand Slam titles record, actually played a fourth-round match. No. 21 seed, Elena Rybakina, who was born in Moscow but in 2018 changed teams and began playing for Kazakhstan, squelched the 39-year-old’s quest, 6-3, 7-5.

Losing two of the best to ever play the game in the fourth round was a “pas une bonne situation (not a good situation). As mentioned, an even worse coincidence occurred when Świątek and Gauff were eliminated in the quarterfinals. The Pole, practically an ingénue when she won the Women’s Singles last fall, lost to Maria Sakkari, “The Second Greek”, 6-4, 6-4. (The first one, not a Trojan Horse, but Tsitsipas.)

Paris was not a complete loss for Świątek because she teamed with an effervescent Mattek-Sands to reach the doubles final where Krejčíková and Siniaková were the better team.

Iga Swiatek and Bethanie Mattek-Sands enjoying their doubles despite falling short in the final. Photo: Rob Prange

Before the contest, Mattek-Sands bubbled, “I think the great part about playing with Iga is we have so many different shots and so many different plays. We can play down the line. We can play both at net, can play both back. We can hit spin serves, hard serves.

“I think with that dynamic, it makes us a really tough team to play against. It also makes it exciting. I love playing like that. I know Iga does, too. We have a lot of fun on the court”. Gauff, who seems to have been playing among the games’ elite forever, turned 17 in March. Time and again, she has toppled the apparent age barrier and played beyond her years. She did that in Paris, too until Krejčíková defeated the No. 24 seed, 7-6, 6-3.

Bien Joué (Well Played)…
Competing in what is almost their backyard (a.k.a. Court Philippe Chatrier), Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut encouraged by an energetic crowd, edged Alexander Bublik and Andrey Golubev, the plucky Kazakhstanis who were the surprises of the Men’s Doubles, 4-6, 7-6, 6-4. With that victory, they became the first all-French combination to win Roland Garros twice. The title was their 18th overall, including the Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open trophies.

Nicolas Mahut and Pierre Hugues Herbert 2021 Roland Garros
Nicolas Mahut and Pierre Hugues Herbert embrace after their victory. Photo: Frank Molter

Joe Salisbury and Desirae Krawczyk are better known for their doubles, not mixed, success. Salisbury, the Brit, won the 2020 Australian Open Doubles with American Rajeev Ram. Last fall, Krawczyk and Alexa Guarachi of Chile were Roland Garros Women’s Doubles finalists. Interestingly, all four were elite intercollegiate players. Salisbury attended University of Memphis while Krawczyk is an Arizona State University graduate. Working together, they edged Aslan Karatsev and Elena Vesnina of Russia 2-6, 6-4, 10-5 for Mixed Doubles trophy honors.

(This year’s event was actually a “Mini-Mixed” since only 16 rather than the usual 32 teams participated. The champions were unseeded as were the finalists, who entered using a Protected Ranking [PR]. Salisbury is the first player from his country to win a championship in Paris since 1982 when John Lloyd earned the title with Wendy Turnbull of Australia).

This year, Roland Garros celebrated a junior first. It was the first time the French had four competitors in a Junior Grand Slam semifinal. Luca Van Assche played through as did Arthur Fils. In the first all-French Boys’ final since 2002 when Richard Gasquet defeated Laurent Recouderc, Van Assche, in a battle of 17-year-olds, downed Fils 6-4, 6-2.

Linda Noskova and Barbora Krejčíková
Barbora Krejčíková and Linda Noskova showing off their trophies at the Czech Tennis Association. Credit: Michaela Rihova

Since “inaugural” is the go-to word in the junior recap, it is fitting that Roland Garros was the first Junior Girls’ tournament played by Erika Andreeva of Russia and Linda Noskova of the Czech Republic this year. Both are 16 and had played only International World Tennis Women’s events during the past six months. Noskova prevailed 7-6, 6-3 over Andreeva, becoming the first player from her country to win the prestigious title since Hana Mandlíková in 1978.

At Stade Roland Garros it was all about the French boys in the junior competition so Fils and Giovanni Mpetshi Perricard, who lost to his partner in a three-set singles semifinal, teamed up to stop Martin Katz of Belgium and German Samofalov of Ukraine, 7-5, 6-2 for the doubles trophy.

Alexandra Eala of the Philippines and Oksana Selekhmeteva of Russia overwhelmed Maria Bondarenko, also from Russia, and Amarissa Kiara Tóth of Hungary, 6–0, 7–5 in the Girls’ Doubles final

For the second straight Roland Garros Men’s Wheelchair Tennis Championships Alfie Hewett doubled. The defending champion from Great Britain defeated No. 1 ranked Shingo Kunieda of Japan 6-3, 6-4 singles play. Hewitt and countryman Gordon Reid dominated Stephane Houdet and Nicolas Peifer, a French tandem, 6-3, 6-0 for their second straight doubles triumph on the Terre Battue. With the victory – their 11th – they set a record that had been in existence since 2005.

Following the “Doubling” theme, Diede de Groot, in a No. 1 versus No. 2 contest, claimed her 10th Grand Slam Women’s Wheelchair Singles title (and second in Paris), with a 6-4, 6-3 win over Yui Kamiji of Japan. Staying in form she joined countrywoman Aniek van Koot to defeat Kamiji and Jordanne Whiley of Great Britain 6-3, 6-4 to capture the Women’s Doubles title, their eighth overall, coincidentally in the same setting where they won their first in 2018.

Dylan Alcott winning yet another Quad Singles trophy. Photo: Frank Molter

Borrowing from the lyrics of Cole Porter’s well-known salute to the city, Dylan Alcott “loves Paris…” The Australian proved why he is the No. 1 ranked Quad Wheelchair competitor winning his 13th Grand Slam singles championship defeating Sam Schroder of the Netherlands, 6-4, 6-2 in the final. The two clashed in the Australian Open final that Alcott won. And that gives him a perfect record in Grand Slam play this year.

Quelque Chose Semble Éteint (Something Seems Off)…
Night matches on Court Philippe Chatrier was one of the widely acclaimed 2020 changes at Roland Garros. Conceptually, the idea “seemed” to be solid, and it was hoped it would bolster the 2021 event. In actual fact the end result led to more questions than answers. Topping the list was the question – Why did men play most of the 10 night matches with Serena Williams being the only women’s star to appear on that stage.

It isn’t surprising that the night match scheduling didn’t generate applause from the women’s side. It was an example of “secondary caring” – After all we (the tournament) offer equal prize money. What more is, really, needed…? Much, according to a horde of unhappy fans who were forced, often at the beginning of a third set, to leave the Stade Roland Garros grounds because of the city’s nightly curfew (which gradually became a bit elastic becoming later during the tournament, including the night Djokovic faced Nadal when it was decided to let the spectators stay for the entire match).

Nadal and Djokovic 2021 Roland Garros
Nadal and Djokovic after their embrace at the net. Photo: Jean Catuffe

Tennis officials and fans often find Daniil Medvedev’s directness off-putting. In this case, some were listening. The outspoken Russian was unhappy with the scheduling of his quarterfinal match with Tsitsipas. He believed it should have been a featured day match instead of the only night match. After all, he was the No. 2 seed, and his opponent was seeded No. 5.

He opined that the tournament had, in essence sold out, preferring Amazon (the company that owns the television broadcasting rights to night matches) over having people in the stands during the day. (In short, he felt that the tournament chose money over the welfare of the players.) He lost the match, 6-3, 7-6, 7-5, ending the last game with him down 6-5 with an underhand serve that “didn’t work out at all”. (Tsitsipas said, it was “a very Millennial shot.”)

During the pandemic, Medvedev watched the documentary series “Drive to Survive”. One of the episodes at the beginning of the third season was called “Cash Is King”. At the time he didn’t really understand how appropriate the title was until after his match when he offered, (in reference to the tournament’s deal with Amazon), that he now understood that “Cash is King”.

Daniil Medvedev 2021 Roland Garros
Daniil Medvedev using an overhead serve. Photo: Jean Catuffe

Lorenzo Musetti turned 19 on March 3rd but against Djokovic in the fourth-round he played, initially, with a maturity that didn’t evidence his youth. He won the first two sets, 7-6, 7-6 before his opponent moved the gearshift to overdrive and claimed the next two sets, 6-1, 6-0. Then, at 4-0 in the fifth set, the Italian, who is a native of Carrara (home to many quarries), became marble-like and retired.

Following the match he offered, “No, no, no, it’s not an injury. It’s, well, just a little bit of cramps and a little bit of low back pain. I was not anymore able to win a point, and so was not really [up to continuing]. There was no chance that I could win a point, so I decided to retire because I think it was the best thing to do.”

Prior to Roland Garros, Tamara Zidanšek had played singles in eight major championships. Her best showing was reaching the second round. In Paris, the 23-year-old former snowboarder defeated Paula Badosa of Spain in the quarterfinals by the numbing score, 7-5, 4-6, 8-6. In the two-hour, 26-minute contest, there were 15 service breaks along with a combined total of 86 unforced errors. Though Zidanšek lost to Pavlyuchenkova, 7-5, 6-3 in her next match, she became the first Slovenian to reach a Grand Slam semifinal.

Tamara Zidanšek in her semi. Photo: Jean Catuffe

In August 2018, DraftKings launched DraftKings Sportsbook in New Jersey becoming the first legal mobile sports betting operator in the state. Corporate headquarters is in Boston, Massachusetts. Legality aside, it was bizarre to watch Tennis Channel’s post-match television interviews with hosts and a player on a set that featured DraftKings logo framing the interviewee on both sides. The situation became “curioser and curioser” when viewers, during commercial breaks before the start of the next match, were given a code and encourage to enter a “Pick the winner of the next match” contest which could result in a win of up to $30,000. 

The “Somethings Seems Off…” category became an à la carte selection when Yana Sizikova of Russia was added to the Roland Garros historical archive. She was taken into custody by the police after losing her first-round doubles match with countrywoman Ekaterina Alexandrova, one in which they won only a single game in each set. Her arrest was somewhat befuddling.

The Paris prosecutor’s office said she was arrested for, “sports bribery and organized fraud for acts likely to have been committed in September 2020.” It was clear this was not on the tournament’s prix fixe information menu.

As it turned out, the charge pertained to Roland Garros last fall. In 2020, Sizikova teamed with Madison Brengle of the US. They lost 7-6, 6-4 to Romanians, Andreea Mitu and Patricia Maria Tig. At 2-2 in the second set, a bank’s worth of euros was bet that there would be a service break. Sizikova, who has a propensity to double fault, did it twice to lose her serve. Making matters even more perplexing, in her 11-year career, she has earned less than $210,000 and should she be found guilty of the charges, she faces a substantial fine and perhaps, time in prison.

Petra Kvitova 2021 Roland Garros
Petra Kvitova winning her first round match before having to grant a walkover to her next opponent. Photo: Ciol

Concluding the “Something Seems Off” section, Petra Kvitova, the courageous Czech survivor of a knife assault at her home in December 2016, had to withdraw from the tournament. After finishing a Tennis Channel television interview, she mis-stepped, fell and injured her ankle (But cynical observers offered – At least she fulfilled her media responsibilities).

But I…
Ages ago, a friend had a young son who often found a way to do the wrong thing. Every time he was caught and called out; he had an automatic response – But I… Paris always offers a cornucopia of attractions. During Roland Garros, the “City of Lights” seems to shine more. Unfortunately, this year the tournament was all about – But I…

True, Barbora Krejčíková was superlative and Novak Djokovic stood alone. The other champions earned praise. As did a full array of tournament activities.

Sadly, what should have been a “Joie de Vivre” opportunity was tainted by “But I…”

Naomi Osaka was made the Poster Woman of the tournament’s and the game’s – “But I…” Before Roland Garros even began, she announced on Instagram that she would not be doing press conferences. The vitriol that resulted collapsed the dam of sensibility that should actually be an integral part of tennis’ core. When she refused to do a “presser” following her first-round 6-4, 7-6 victory over Patricia Maria Tig of Romania, she was dump-trucked.

Naomi Osaka 2021 Roland Garros
Naomi Osaka warming up for her first and only match at this year’s Roland Garros. Photo: Rob Prange

Not only was she fined $15,000 she was threatened with sanctions by the other Grand Slams. Gilles Moretton, President of the Fédération Française de Tennis (FFT), served as the “Human Shield” for all the majors voicing the “rules must be followed…” doctrine. Osaka reacted honorably. Explaining she didn’t want to detract from the attention the play deserved and adding that she had been dealing with anxiety issues for some time, she withdrew from the tournament.

Moretton, the Mouthpiece, quickly issued a statement about everyone’s concern for her mental health and that of all the players… Still there are no “But I” exceptions.

Osaka, in effect, outed herself revealing how vulnerable she often feels. Even though she is a four-time Grand Slam champion, she is very shy. As a result, she made mistakes while trying to explain her actions; she wasn’t going to be accessible was what she was actually trying to say. Could she have handled the situation better – Certainly…But, in the end, her honesty cost her more than she could have imagined.

For many cultures saving face is critically important, which may be the reason the closing Roland Garros press conference involving Moretton, Tournament Director, Guy Forget and Fédération Française de Tennis Director General Amélie Oudéa-Castéra, who is a former player, became, in actuality, a resounding – “But I…”

The trio went to great lengths to defend the treatment Osaka received. The comments were worthy of a political stump-speech. As Oudéa-Castéra concluded, “I think we really cared for her. We really tried to engage. We were pragmatic in the way we handled the progressive approach to sanctions. We were very much aligned with all the slams to make sure there was not a Roland Garros position, et cetera. We took care of her since she withdrew from the tournament. It was a very sensitive and difficult situation, but we believe we really treated that with respect, with care.

“And yes, of course, on mental health, we can do better. This is part of the roadmap we have with the other slams.

“We will take the initiative on the matter together.” Pragmatic means dealing with things sensibly and realistically… In this case, “But I…” didn’t even come close.

Title photo: the new sculpture of pilot Roland Garros by Caroline Brisset

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