Category Archives: Toy stats

Stanislas Wawrinka and Hanging With the Top Ten

Only three ATP players this year have won more than five matches against top-ten-ranked opponents: Rafael Nadal (20), Novak Djokovic (18), and Stanislas Wawrinka (7).  It’s a good single-stat representation of Stan’s great year, as the Swiss had only won 18 matches against top-ten opponents in the previous eight seasons, including a painful 2-11 showing last year.

Wawrinka’s ability to play at the level of the very best players makes one wonder if he will move even higher in the rankings next year.  Is it possible that players who amass so many top-ten victories are slated for bigger and better things?

Certainly, seven top-ten wins in a season is no mean accomplishment.  Andy Roddick finished the 2003 season as World #1 with only six such wins, and Nadal ascended to #2 in 2005 with only five top-ten wins.  Since 1991, 25 players have finished a season in the top five while winning fewer matches against top-ten opponents than Wawrinka did this year.  And of course, with at least three matches against top-flight opponents this week, Stan might not be done.

On the other hand, tallying a bunch of victories against top-ten opponents doesn’t always predict further success.  Since 1991, 42 players have won at least seven such matches while finishing outside the top five.  Of those, only 12 improved their overall winning percentage the next year.  On average, those players saw their overall winning percentages drop eight percent.

One particularly bizarre precedent for Stan’s top-ten success is Vince Spadea‘s 1999 campaign.  While he barely broke even on the season, winning 33 of 60 matches, eight of those wins were against top-ten opponents, including Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, and Yevgeny Kafelnikov (twice!).  The next year, he lost his first sixteen matches in a row and tallied only three tour-level wins–against anyone.

There are a few extreme examples in the other direction.  Sampras went 8-7 against top-ten opponents in 1991, finishing the year at #6.  He continued his climb into the tennis stratosphere the following season.  19-year-old Lleyton Hewitt won 10 of 16 top-ten matches in 2000 en route to a #7 ranking.  A year later, he was #1 in the world.  And for a case even closer to home for Wawrinka, a young man named Roger won 10 matches against top-ten opponents in 2002, finishing the year at #6.  It would be a long time before his ranking returned to such a low point.

Of course, Pete, Lleyton, and Roger were youngsters on their way up.  No matter how distended the ATP aging curve becomes, it’s safe to assume that Wawrinka is not at an equivalent stage of his career.

It’s a familiar story with tennis statistics.  Wawrinka has a great season, so we look for the reason why.  (Top-ten wins? Improved second-serve win percentage? Better tiebreak win percentage?) It’s easy to find numbers that show us what worked this year, much more difficult to convincingly explain why.  It’s more difficult still to support a conviction that the player has “turned a corner” and we can expect more of this high-quality play from him next year.

Top-ten win tallies like Wawrinka’s aren’t any better at picking future winners than tiebreak records like his 17-12 mark are.  It’s no more than a fun stat and a useful marker of a solid year.  But don’t fret, Stan fans, it doesn’t make a coherent case for a decline, either.  Stan may well be a top-ten mainstay for the next few years–after all, somebody’s got to be.


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Winning Matches With Very Few Return Points

Yesterday in Paris, Gilles Simon won the first set of his match over Nicolas Mahut (a.k.a. Nicolas Massu), doing so with the benefit of a single break.  That’s not unusual, but his return performance in the set was.  He won only four return points in the entire set–all, of course, in that single game.

It’s possible to win a set while claiming only one return point, if you reach a tiebreak and win every point on your own serve.  In theory, then, a player could win a best-of-three-set match while winning only two return points, or a best-of-five with only three.  If no sets reach tiebreaks, a player could win a match with as few as four return points per set, as Simon did in the first set yesterday.

In the last 20-plus years of ATP tour-level matches, no one has ever posted such an extreme win, winning only two return points (or even eight return points in a match with no tiebreaks) en route to victory.  But on several occasions, players have come close.

Since 1991, six players have won matches while winning only ten return points.  The most recent was Philipp Kohlschreiber‘s 6-4 7-6(4) victory over Jonathan Dasnieres de Veigy at the 2011 Metz tournament.

More impressive, though, was Albert Montanes‘s 2002 victory over Felix Mantilla in Acapulco.  He won 6-4 6-4 with only ten return points won, meaning that he “wasted” only two of those return points.  Mantilla had ten service games, lost two them, and held to love in at least six of the others.

Record-setting in their own way are two more of these ten-return-point matches: Irakli Labadze d. Justin Gimelstob 6-7(2) 7-6(3) 6-2 (2001 Shanghai) and Gustavo Kuerten d. Marat Safin 3-6 7-6(2) 7-6(2) (2000 Indianapolis).  These are the three-set matches in which the winner claimed the fewest return points.  It’s possible that Labadze and Kuerten didn’t win a single return point in the sets they lost, but it makes their eventual victory all the more impressive.

The Labadze win is also notable in that it is the only ten-return-points-won match in which the winner won a double-break set.  The Kuerten victory points in a new direction: Safin hit two double faults, so of the ten return points Kuerten won, he only had to make an effort on eight of them.

Remarkably, that’s not quite the record.  At 1992 Queen’s Club, Shuzo Matsuoka beat Goran Ivanisevic 6-4 6-3 while winning just 12 return points.  Five of those were Ivanisevic double faults, so Matsuoka only won seven points in which he returned the big Croatian’s serve.

One more bit of trivia.  At last year’s US Open, Milos Raonic beat Paul Henri Mathieu 7-5 6-4 7-6(4) while tallying only 16 return points (two of which were PHM double faults).  That’s the record for best-of-five-set matches, just barely edging out Jurgen Melzer‘s 2007 victory in Australia over Ivo Karlovic, 6-4 6-4 7-6(6), in which he won only 17 return points (three of them doubles).

Dr. Ivo, as you might guess, has piled up more than his share of this sort of match.  In fact, he has played 65 matches in his career in which the winner won fewer than 20 return points, amassing a nearly even record of 33 wins and 32 losses.  That impressive total puts him in second place among ATPers of the last 23 years, behind Andy Roddick.  Roddick played 69 such matches, winning 54 against only 15 losses.  Fittingly, Roddick and Karlovic played two of those matches against each other … and the American won both.

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Daniel Brands and Ace Records in Context

In the Vienna round of 16 last week, Juan Martin Del Potro beat Daniel Brands in a three-set, three-tiebreak match.  The courts are fast, Delpo serves big, and apparently Brands has quite the weapon of his own, as both players hit at least 30 aces.  Brands hit 32.

We can’t help but be impressed at the sheer numbers.  As it turns out, it’s an ATP first, at least since 1991, when the ATP started keeping such stats.  Never before had both players hit at least 30 aces in a three-set match.

Here are the top nine matches in the ATP record books, in which both servers reached a certain ace milestone:

minAces  Winner                 Loser              Year  Event               Surface  Score                 wAces  lAces  
30       Juan Martin Del Potro  Daniel Brands      2012  Vienna              Hard     6-7(5) 7-6(4) 7-6(6)     30     32  
29       John Isner             Gilles Muller      2010  Atlanta             Hard     4-6 7-6(6) 7-6(7)        33     29  
28       Andrei Pavel           Gregory Carraz     2005  Milan               Carpet   7-6(0) 6-7(5) 7-6(3)     28     33  
25       Greg Rusedski          Joachim Johansson  2004  Moscow              Carpet   7-6(5) 6-7(1) 7-6(7)     25     26  
25       Arnaud Clement         Thomas Johansson   2008  Cincinnati Masters  Hard     7-6(4) 6-7(5) 6-3        25     28  
24       Mark Philippoussis     Greg Rusedski      2002  Queen's Club        Grass    6-7(1) 7-6(3) 7-6(5)     25     24  
24       Joachim Johansson      Kristof Vliegen    2006  Stockholm           Hard     6-7(5) 7-6(5) 7-6(7)     24     24  
24       Andy Roddick           Ivo Karlovic       2009  Queen's Club        Grass    7-6(4) 7-6(5)            24     26  
24       Richard Gasquet        Joachim Johansson  2009  Kuala Lumpur        Hard     4-6 7-6(1) 6-2           26     24

(There are several matches in which both players hit 23, including two on clay, both from 2011: Isner/Karlovic in Houston, and Federer/Feliciano Lopez in Madrid.  Both went to three tiebreaks.)

Aces in a losing effort

Even independent of Del Potro’s 30 aces, it stands out that Brands racked up 32 aces in a best-of-three losing effort.  But that’s not a record–it ties him for 16th of all time with several others, including Sam Querrey, Milos Raonic, Ivo Karlovic, and Goran Ivanisevic, who did it twice.

Mardy Fish may not be proud of this record, but he simply blows away the rest of the field, having served past the eminently ace-able Olivier Rochus 43 times despite losing to the Belgian.  Though Karlovic may not sit atop the list, he makes up for it by dominating the middle.

lAces  Winner              Loser             Year  Event             Surface  Score                  wAces  
43     Olivier Rochus      Mardy Fish        2007  Lyon              Carpet   6-7(5) 7-6(6) 7-6(15)      2  
37     Yevgeny Kafelnikov  Alexander Waske   2002  Tashkent          Hard     6-7(6) 7-6(5) 7-6(6)      10  
35     Pete Sampras        Goran Ivanisevic  1996  Tour Finals       Carpet   6-7(6) 7-6(4) 7-5         17  
35     Andy Roddick        Feliciano Lopez   2011  Queen's Club      Grass    7-6(2) 6-7(5) 6-4         15  
35     Feliciano Lopez     Ivo Karlovic      2004  Madrid Masters    Hard     6-4 6-7(10) 7-6(5)         8  
35     Yen Hsun Lu         Ivo Karlovic      2012  Queen's Club      Grass    6-7(3) 7-6(6) 7-6(7)       6  
35     Rafael Nadal        Ivo Karlovic      2008  Queen's Club      Grass    6-7(5) 7-6(5) 7-6(4)       6  
35     Arnaud Clement      Ivo Karlovic      2004  's-Hertogenbosch  Grass    7-6(8) 6-7(5) 6-3          2  
34     Thomas Johansson    Ivan Ljubicic     2002  Canada Masters    Hard     4-6 6-4 7-6(6)            17  
34     Lars Burgsmuller    Wayne Arthurs     2006  Tokyo             Hard     6-7(5) 7-6(7) 7-6(3)      10  
34     Richey Reneberg     Richard Krajicek  1997  Halle             Grass    4-6 7-6(2) 7-6(6)          6

Total aces in a single match

If there has never been a match in which both players hit 30 aces, a match total of 62 aces must be pretty impressive, right?

Indeed it is.  Del Potro and Brands are now tied for the record, initially set by John Isner and Gilles Muller two years ago in Atlanta.  It’s only the fourth time that two players have combined for 60 or more aces in a best-of-three contest.

totAces  Winner                 Loser             Year  Event               Surface  Score                 wAces  lAces  
62       Juan Martin Del Potro  Daniel Brands     2012  Vienna              Hard     6-7(5) 7-6(4) 7-6(6)     30     32  
62       John Isner             Gilles Muller     2010  Atlanta             Hard     4-6 7-6(6) 7-6(7)        33     29  
61       Andrei Pavel           Gregory Carraz    2005  Milan               Carpet   7-6(0) 6-7(5) 7-6(3)     28     33  
60       Goran Ivanisevic       Magnus Norman     1997  Zagreb              Carpet   7-6(5) 6-7(4) 7-5        40     20  
58       Frank Dancevic         Peter Wessels     2007  Stockholm           Hard     6-1 6-7(7) 7-6(6)        35     23  
55       Jan Michael Gambill    Wayne Arthurs     2002  San Jose            Hard     7-5 6-7(5) 7-6(4)        22     33  
55       Bohdan Ulihrach        Goran Ivanisevic  1999  Rotterdam           Carpet   6-7(6) 7-6(3) 7-5        23     32  
53       Andy Roddick           Wayne Arthurs     2006  Memphis             Hard     6-7(4) 7-6(9) 7-6(2)     20     33  
53       Andy Roddick           Sam Querrey       2010  San Jose            Hard     2-6 7-6(5) 7-6(4)        21     32  
53       Arnaud Clement         Thomas Johansson  2008  Cincinnati Masters  Hard     7-6(4) 6-7(5) 6-3        25     28  
53       Joachim Johansson      Gregory Carraz    2004  Canada Masters      Hard     7-6(4) 6-7(3) 7-6(4)     30     23

The higher bar of ace rate

If you want to set a record in a best-of-three-sets match, getting to those three tiebreaks is a good idea.  The more points you play, the more likely you’ll hit more aces, as evidenced by Fish’s losing performance, where he not only reached three tiebreaks, but played at least twelve points in each one!

For greater context, we should open up the field to all matches regardless of length, and compare them by ace rate.

Del Potro’s 30 aces came in 125 service points, for an ace rate of 24%.  Brands hit 32 in 131, for an ace ate of 24.4%.  It’s not often that one player (not named Isner, anyway) hits nearly one-quarter of his serves for aces, so it is particularly unusual for both players to do so.

In all tour-level matches (including grand slams) since 1991, a minimum ace rate of 24.0% is only good for 17th.  Andy Roddick was particularly adept at bringing about these kinds of matches, appearing in 6 of the top 11 on this list:

minA%  Winner            Loser              Year  Event            Surface  Score                wA%    lA%  
33.3%  Andy Roddick      Ivo Karlovic       2009  Queen's Club     Grass    7-6(4) 7-6(5)      33.3%  35.1%  
29.8%  Mikhail Youzhny   Ivan Ljubicic      2007  Rotterdam        Hard     6-2 6-4            29.8%  29.8%  
29.2%  Gregory Carraz    Martin Verkerk     2004  Milan            Carpet   6-3 7-6(3)         30.4%  29.2%  
27.3%  Goran Ivanisevic  Boris Becker       1996  Antwerp          Carpet   6-4 7-6(5)         30.8%  27.3%  
27.1%  John Isner        Gilles Muller      2010  Atlanta          Hard     4-6 7-6(6) 7-6(7)  27.5%  27.1%  
27.0%  Robin Soderling   Andy Roddick       2008  Lyon             Carpet   7-6(5) 7-6(5)      27.0%  27.2%  
26.7%  Janko Tipsarevic  Peter Luczak       2010  s-Hertogenbosch  Grass    6-3 6-3            26.7%  27.1%  
26.1%  Andy Roddick      Gilles Muller      2008  Memphis          Hard     6-4 7-6(4)         27.4%  26.1%  
25.4%  Andy Roddick      Joachim Johansson  2004  San Jose         Hard     6-3 7-6(7)         36.5%  25.4%  
25.4%  Andy Roddick      Nicolas Mahut      2008  Lyon             Carpet   7-6(5) 6-4         29.0%  25.4%  
25.3%  Andy Roddick      Feliciano Lopez    2008  Dubai            Hard     6-7(8) 6-4 6-2     26.2%  25.3%

Ace rate in a losing effort

While losers rarely hit as many aces as Brands did last week, losers often hit aces at a much higher rate.  Brands doesn’t register anywhere near the top of this all-time list.

Think of it this way: The shorter the match, the more likely a player will do something off-the-charts, rate-wise.  Karlovic tops this list, with 28 aces in his 70 service points.  Brands didn’t maintain anywhere near the same rate that Ivo did, but Brands did have to hit nearly twice as many serves!  Had Karlovic continued for 61 more serves, he probably would’ve done better than 24.4%, but it is very unlikely he would have continued at a 4-in-10 pace.

This is also a reason why we haven’t seen many best-of-five matches on the ace-rate leaderboards.  Even if one player is acing like a madman while quickly losing, he still has to keep up the pace for three sets.

lA%    Winner              Loser               Year  Event               Surface  Score                     lAces  
40.0%  Florent Serra       Ivo Karlovic        2009  Basel               Hard     7-6(5) 6-4                   28  
37.5%  Alex Obrien         Mark Philippoussis  1996  Cincinnati Masters  Hard     6-4 6-4                      21  
36.6%  Thomas Johansson    Ivan Ljubicic       2002  Canada Masters      Hard     4-6 6-4 7-6(6)               34  
35.8%  Richey Reneberg     Richard Krajicek    1997  Halle               Grass    4-6 7-6(2) 7-6(6)            34  
35.1%  Andy Roddick        Ivo Karlovic        2009  Queen's Club        Grass    7-6(4) 7-6(5)                26  
34.8%  Paul Henri Mathieu  Ivo Karlovic        2009  Cincinnati Masters  Hard     7-6(9) 6-4                   23  
34.8%  Paul Henri Mathieu  Chris Guccione      2008  Adelaide            Hard     4-6 6-3 6-4                  24  
34.2%  Andre Agassi        Joachim Johansson   2005  Australian Open     Hard     6-7(4) 7-6(5) 7-6(3) 6-4     51  
33.8%  Jonas Bjorkman      Mark Philippoussis  2002  Memphis             Hard     7-6(6) 7-6(1)                26  
33.3%  Thomas Johansson    Wayne Arthurs       2001  Nottingham          Grass    7-6(3) 7-6(3)                24  
33.3%  Yevgeny Kafelnikov  Marc Rosset         2002  Marseille           Hard     6-3 7-6(5)                   19  
33.3%  Andre Agassi        Goran Ivanisevic    1994  Vienna              Carpet   6-4 6-4                      19

Combined ace rate

As you might have guessed by now, 24% isn’t going to be good enough to crack this final all-time list.  Roddick, Karlovic, and Mark Philippousis simply played too many matches to allow that to happen.

Indeed, the Brands/Del Potro combined rate of 24.2% isn’t even close to the top of this list.  To show up here, it’s necessary to come within an ace or two of the 30% mark.  With Andy’s retirement and Ivo’s decline, this leaderboard looks particularly safe at the moment.

totA%  Winner              Loser              Year  Event                 Surface  Score          totAces    wA%    lA%  
34.2%  Andy Roddick        Ivo Karlovic       2009  Queen's Club          Grass    7-6(4) 7-6(5)       50  33.3%  35.1%  
31.6%  Andy Roddick        Thomas Johansson   2004  Bangkok               Hard     6-3 6-4             31  38.2%  23.3%  
31.6%  Andy Roddick        Joachim Johansson  2004  San Jose              Hard     6-3 7-6(7)          42  36.5%  25.4%  
31.6%  Martin Verkerk      Thomas Enqvist     2003  Milan                 Carpet   6-3 6-4             30  46.0%  15.6%  
30.6%  Robin Soderling     Gregory Carraz     2004  Marseille             Hard     6-3 6-4             30  42.6%  19.6%  
30.4%  Jonathan Stark      Goran Ivanisevic   1997  Indian Wells Masters  Hard     7-5 6-3             34  37.7%  23.7%  
29.9%  Mark Philippoussis  Lionel Roux        1996  Paris Masters         Carpet   6-4 6-4             35  49.1%  11.7%  
29.8%  Mikhail Youzhny     Ivan Ljubicic      2007  Rotterdam             Hard     6-2 6-4             28  29.8%  29.8%  
29.8%  Gregory Carraz      Martin Verkerk     2004  Milan                 Carpet   6-3 7-6(3)          36  30.4%  29.2%  
29.0%  Jonathan Stark      Thomas Enqvist     1993  Halle                 Grass    6-4 6-2             27  37.8%  20.8%  
29.0%  Goran Ivanisevic    Boris Becker       1996  Antwerp               Carpet   6-4 7-6(5)          38  30.8%  27.3%

Andy, we’re missing you already.

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Seeds Firmly Planted

Unless seeds withdraw at the last minute, every 2nd round match at Indian Wells and Miami is between a seed and a non-seed.  While byes are by no means limited to these two events, Indian Wells and Miami are the only ones that offer us 32 matches pittting a seeded favorite against an unseeded underdog.

Of course, for a variety of reasons, from surface to health to lucky bounces, the favorites don’t always win.  But over the last two days at Crandon Park, it has felt like they do.  All 32 seeds showed up ready to play, and 29 of them advanced to the third round.  Only Juan Ignacio Chela, Feliciano Lopez, and Marcel Granollers lost.

Cue the chorus: That’s got to be some kind of record, right?

Indeed it is, at least back to 1991, which is the current extent of my database.  Miami has had the 96-player draw with 32 seeds (and 32 byes) back to 1986, while Indian Wells got into the act in 2004.  That gives us 30 past tournaments in my database, including last week’s event at Indian Wells, for the 2012 Miami Masters to measure up against.

On average, seeds win approximately two-thirds of their 2nd-round matches in these 96-player draws.  (At tour-level events in general, seeds win 70% of their matches against unseeded players.)  In a typical event, then, 21 or 22 seeds advance to the third round.  As it turns out, that’s what happened last week at Indian Wells–21 wins, 10 losses, one withdrawal.

This week’s 29 seeded winners doesn’t just set a new record–it blows away the old mark.  Three years ago, 25 seeds advanced to the third round in Miami.  In 2008, the same number advanced in Indian Wells, and that’s the best the seeds have ever done.  Five other times (including last year at Indian Wells), 24 seeds advanced.  At the other extreme, the 1997 Miami event was a bloodbath, with only half of the seeds advancing.

It’s remarkable enough that this many seeds won for the first time in 31 tournaments.  But the odds are far lower than that.  Using my projections for the second round–which, of course, aren’t perfect, and may slightly underestimate the odds of the top few players advancing–there was only a 0.37% chance that 29 or more seeds would win their first matches.  That’s roughly 1 in 270.

So, if you were watching yesterday, you were witnessing history.  Rather boring history, but a rare event nonetheless.


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Who Excels at the March Masters?

It’s not quite March Madness, but the March Masters tournaments of Indian Wells and Miami do constitute a unique part of the tennis season.  Though the conditions are different on opposite sides of the continent, it’s hot, and many players are contesting their first important matches since the Australian Open.

I queried my match database to come up with the best career performers at these two tournaments.  Setting aside a few players who have done well in just a couple of showings, here are the top twelve active players, by win percentage at Indian Wells and Miami.  (Incidentally, they are the only twelve with winning percentages over 60%.)

Player                  W   L  Titles   Win%  
Novak Djokovic         40   8       4  83.3%  
Rafael Nadal           57  13       2  81.4%  
Roger Federer          73  19       5  79.3%  
Andy Roddick           58  19       2  75.3%  
Juan Martin Del Potro  19   7       0  73.1%  
Andy Murray            25  11       1  69.4%  
Lleyton Hewitt         42  21       2  66.7%  
Ivan Ljubicic          37  20       1  64.9%  
Tomas Berdych          25  14       0  64.1%  
James Blake            37  21       0  63.8%  
Jo Wilfried Tsonga     13   8       0  61.9%  
Stanislas Wawrinka     14   9       0  60.9%

Del Potro is highest on the list among those without a title at either event.  Roddick’s place so high on the list serves as a reminder that this is his kind of territory–hard courts in the heat.  If he hadn’t played so poorly in his last two events, it would be tempting to pick him as an underdog this month.

If you’re interested in this sort of thing, I hope you’ve started playing around with Tennis Abstract.  One of the latest features to come online is the ability to make multiple selections from a single menu.  For instance, on Ivan Ljubicic’s page, select “Career” from the “Time Span” menu, then open up the “Events” menu on the left-hand side, then select both Indian Wells and Miami, which will show you the matches (and their stats) that add up to his 37-20 record at these tournaments.

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Federer in Straight Sets

During the telecast of today’s match between Roger Federer and Andreas Seppi, commentator Jason Goodall mentioned an interesting stat.  Federer has won more of his matches in straight sets since losing the number one ranking than he did while ranked number one.

Just about every stat from Roger’s reign at number one is impressive.  Not counting Davis Cup or matches that ended in retirement, Federer played 432 matches while atop the rankings, and won 383 (88.7%) of them.  He won 284 of those matches in straight sets.  That’s 65.7% of all matches, and 74.2% of his wins.

Since losing the top spot, Roger has played 189 matches, and won 162 (85.7%) of them.  (Still pretty good, eh?)  In that time span, he has won 125 matches in straight sets–66.1% of all matches, and 77.2% of his wins.

Both numbers are better, though not much.  The story here isn’t that he is suddenly more dominant in his wins–the increases aren’t enough for that.  Instead, the surprise is that he doesn’t seem any less dominant.  A bit of that is because some 3-set victories have turned into losses, but his modest drop in winning percentage reminds us that he still isn’t losing very many matches.  Today’s hiccup against Andreas Seppi notwithstanding, second-tier players still aren’t making many inroads against Federer.

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