By In Tennis

American Tennis Blues

Three or so years ago, during the U.S. Open, I wrote a column about American men’s tennis that kind of ticked off some people I worked with. They were big American tennis fans. And if you are something of a tennis fan, you might remember that was the U.S. Open the first week was basically spent CELEBRATING American men’s tennis, at least here in America.

Yes, that was the tournament where a young American wildcard named Donald Young took out the No. 14 seeded Stan Wawrinka in five grueling sets. He then crushed another good seeded player, Spain’s Juan Ignacio Chela. Young was summarily evicted from the tournament in straight sets by Andy Murray, but that was OK, it was a promising run for a 22-year-old. At the same tournament, John Isner big-served his way into the quarterfinals before also losing to Murray in four semi-competitive sets. And Mardy Fish made it into the Round of 16 before losing a five-set heartbreaker to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. It seemed like a lot of good news.

Then I wrote the column about how the news really wasn’t all that good — that was the 32nd consecutive grand slam not won by an American man and ninth straight without an American man even in the semifinal. Like I say, a few people emailed and called and said that U.S. men’s tennis was on the rise and I was missing the point.

Well, they were right. I was missing the point. The signs were actually much, much worse than I thought.

Here we are at Wimbledon 2014 — and there’s not a single U.S. player in the round of 16 on either the men’s or women’s side. Not one. It’s the first time that has happened since, well, ever. OK, technically before 1922 Wimbledon had this “challenge round” system where the previous year’s champion was automatically put in the final so it was a very different tournament. If you want to get technical, there were no Americans in anywhwere near the final back in 1911. It’s also true that in 1911, only two Americans — someone named Craig Biddle and another called W.S. Cushing — even entered. And they were probably there on vacation.

So, yeah, I think you can call this unprecedented. It’s also somewhat predictable. While Americans celebrate America’s place of respectability on the world soccer stage, the U.S. standing in tennis (a sport the United States used to dominate) has never been lower. I pointed this out before — at the end of 1989, Here were the Americans in the Top 10:

1. Ivan Lendl
4. John McEnroe
5. Michael Chang
6. Brad Gilbert
7. Andre Agassi
8. Aaron Krickstein
10. Jay Berger

And this was just after Jimmy Connors’ decline and just before Pete Sampras’ rise. Jim Courier would rise to No. 1 within two years. MaliVai Washington and Todd Martin and others had interesting and occasionally stirring careers. Andy Roddick would go to No. 1 and James Blake had his moments. Tennis was an American sport.

Here are the men in the Top 10 rankings right now.

And here are the women in the Top 10 rankings right now:
1. Serena Williams

The last American man to win a Grand Slam event: Andy Roddick won the 2003 U.S. Open.

The last American man to appear in the final of a Grand Slam event: Andy Roddick at Wimbledon five years ago.

The last American man to appear in a SEMIFINAL of a Grand Slam event: Andy Roddick at Wimbledon five years ago.

And here, if you are an American tennis fan, will be the most depressing chart you will see for a while. Here are the countries represented in the men’s quarterfinals in the last 10 Grand Slam events. Remember these are just the quarterfinals:

Spain: 21
Serbia: 10
Switzerland: 9
Great Britain: 9
France: 8
Czech Republic: 6
Argentina: 4
Germany: 3
Poland: 3
Bulgaria: 1
Canada: 1
Croatia: 1
Japan: 1
Latvia: 1
United States: 0

Of course, one player makes all the difference — Serbia’s 10 appearances are all Novak Djokovic. We’ll get back to that point in a minute with the U.S. women. It is still stunning that no American man has been good enough the last 10 grand slams to get to the quarters a grand slam. As recently as 1995, FIVE of the eight U.S. Open quarterfinalists were American.

For a long time, it seemed like it was a happier story for American’s tennis on the women’s side, but it might just be that Serena Williams’ greatness masked the same issue. Williams won her first grand slam way back in 1999 — her endurance and ability to still be the No. 1 ranked player as she approaches 33 years old is inspiring. But it’s also revealing — the last American woman to make a grand slam final NOT named Serena Williams was … Venus Williams, who played her sister at in the 2009 Wimbledon championships.

The last American non-Williams sister to reach a final? Lindsey Davenport back at Wimbledon in 2005. She lost to Serena Williams.

Right now, other than Serena, there is not a single American ranked in the Top 15. Sloane Stephens, who showed a lot of promise in reaching the semifinal at the Australian Open last year, has been in a big slump; she’s ranked 18th. The next American is Madison Keys, who is 30th. Then comes, yep, Venus Williams, who is a year older than Serena.

This is not meant to be so America-centric — America dominated tennis for a long time and there was no reason to expect that to last forever. Tennis is a worldwide sport and you would hope for great players to come from all over the world. For a long time America dominated tennis to an almost suffocating degree; from 1972-1987 American women won all but two Wimbledons, all but two U.S. Opens and the lions share of French Opens too. Meanwhile, six different American men have won since the Open Era began and seven have been ranked No. 1 in the world. The fact that great players are coming from all over the world now is great for the sport.

But this American fall is still pretty striking. Inside the tennis community there seem to be dozens of theories about why no American players can break through — theories about youth tennis, theories about the college tennis system, theories about the lack access American kids have to clay courts, theories about the sort of instruction necessary to develop world class players, theories about how the superior young athletes who were growing up playing tennis are now playing soccer and basketball and so on. There are some who say that the U.S. Tennis Association is not keeping up with the times. There are some who say that the grueling dedication it takes from a young age to become a world class player doesn’t really match up with our idea of the American childhood.

I don’t know. I have a friend who is pretty involved in youth tennis, and he says that there is a wave of young Americans coming up who have a chance to be pretty special. He tends to believe it’s all cyclical and this is just a down period. “It will come back up,” he says. Maybe so. But I also think about what Jimmy Arias said when talking about American tennis. Arias had a good career — reaching the semifinal of the U.S. Open in 1983 and the quarters at the French Open the next year — that was overlooked because there were so many good American tennis players then.

“Can you name the third-highest ranked American?” he challenged the crowd. No one could. Then it was someone named Bradley Klahn. Now? Well, I went to the list and kept going … and going .. .and going. John Isner is ranked 11th in the world. The next American? Samy Querrey. He’s 67th. The third is the mercurial Donald Young at 69.

“It’s a problem,” Arias said.

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35 Responses to American Tennis Blues

  1. Karyn says:

    I wonder if the folks who run the USA youth tennis program (whatever it’s called) don’t have a specific idea in mind of what a young player looks like, and if someone doesn’t fit that mold, they won’t support the kid.

    There’s a girl player, a little on the heavier side, who plays very well, but they put her on a special fitness program, and after she didn’t slim down, they didn’t take her to a couple of big tournaments.

  2. bl says:

    I think you can see very clearly by the utter lack of comments that Americans just don’t care about tennis anymore. No one even read the article just to make a comment about some other article you wrote or should write.

    • Byrne says:

      that might also have something to do with the article being written from the perspective of what clearly is a (at best) casual tennis fan. The USTA is a large part of the problem and it was barely addressed in the article. The USTA operates as a big business and run like a business not necessarily enhancing our players. It also does a lot for players of other countries that use our facilities, instructors, trainers etc so it isn’t just the development system because you’ve had foreign players like Sharapova living and training here since she was young. Andy Murray trains at the Miami facilities and so on. There’s also huge conflicts of interest within the game. A lot of the top coaches also have commitments on national boards. It’s been awhile since an American coach was considered a big deal in tennis circles. There are other factors as well. Navratilova has pointed out since the fall of communism there was a huge influx of Eastern European players. I think something like 35% of players on The ATP & WTA are from Eastern Europe now. So we’re talking about Euro countries where kids are pretty much only playing soccer or tennis and maybe a few countries like Croatia where kids are playing basketball or Czechs/Slovaks/Russians playing hockey. Tennis has also become a sport where the top players almost have to be 6’2 to play this power/slowed down game. You look at most of the guys, save for the juiced up David Ferrer, in the top 10, they’re all at least 6’2 – Fed & Nadal, and the rest are over 6’3 with the majority (Berdych, Raonic, Isner, del Potro, Tsonga etc 6’5 or over.

      And yeah it’s easy to point out that Spain and Serbia have become tennis ‘powers’ but it’s also easy to see those powers are fueled by PEDs. I know Joe is apathetic to PEDs in baseball so it’s no surprise he didn’t broach the subject here but you know, Spain had an entire academy of players (including pretty much all the top players) who have been trained to dope for years. And anyone who thinks Djokovic is clean clearly didn’t watch his career up until he turned 23 and/or is probably a big Barry Bonds fan. Dropping gluten all of a sudden makes you a top player. Man you’d think everyone would be gluten free by now. So yeah. Isner and Querrey and Young who have all been criticized in the past for their fitness levels, are not only behind the proverbial 8-ball in terms of talent level (because they’re not great athletes), but they’re also behind the 8-ball because they can’t keep up with HGH & EPO ridden players like Nadal, Djoker and Ferrer. For those who don’t follow tennis, the testing program is like the NHL’s testing program. Meaning, it’s so ridiculous that they may as well not even have one.

      I don’t blame kids for not being interested in it. Too many other options and even as a pretty big tennis fan, I don’t enjoy today’s PED-fueled defensive game where the courts have been slowed down (even grass courts play slow these days). Very few players intrigue me. I’d rather watch a Dmitrov vs Nick Kyrgios match than two of the three slowest working players in Nadal vs Djoker who also happen to consistently churn out chemically enhanced defense-first struggles. So that’s not good for the sport. I’d imagine the ATP would like it’s loyal fanbase to want to watch it’s top players. Finally it’s not a great television sport. It’s not that unlike baseball or football where there is like 13 minutes of actual action in a 3 hour game, but tennis will usually check in between 15-17% of time players are on court are actually playing tennis. And let’s face it, unless you’re in a prep school, there is no tennis homecoming at school. There is no glamour in playing tennis at the average American high school. It’s one notch above marching band or yearbook committee. Tennis simply hasn’t erased it’s WASP preppy sport trappings that golf has largely managed to do. I think that perhaps comes from the ATP being based in England (for the most part) and the suits are kind of out of touch with our youth. So that and the short-sightedness of chasing sponsorship money at places in South America ditching more and more US events is only going to kill the sport here as well. Even if the US developed another sets of Williams sisters on the women’s side and their equivalent on the men’s side, it’s not going to help much. It’s too far gone IMO. As a whole we’ll care about the US Open and Wimbledon (clearly that’s what most non-tennis beat writers only care about as well as I don’t recall Joe writing tennis posts outside of those two events..maybe the French Open), and that’s about it. Columnists aren’t penning columns on the ATP 250 events in Stockholm that’s for sure.

      • Byrne says:

        even in that lengthy diatribe I completely blanked on one of the most important points in today’s game. Unless you’re a top say 40 player, you’re not making squat. Justin Gimelstob noted that players even in the bottom half of the top 100 aren’t making “bankable money”, meaning they’re barely breaking even after their travel/hotel expenses, trainer(s), coach, and trying to maintain a home somewhere. That’s a huge problem. The disparity in prize money.

      • KidB says:

        Fed and Nadal are both an even 6’1

      • KidB says:

        And on what planet is Jo Willie Tsonga 6’5?

      • KidB says:

        And if tennis isn’t a great television sport because of time playing v. in-between time, then how in the world did Football become so popular?

        All in all, I think your post was fairly conclusory and terrible.

        • Byrne says:

          what a coincidence, I think you’re both opaque and a moron.

          • Byrne says:

            and the NFL is popular for the reasons we’re all aware of. Gambling, the short season, low intensity fantasy football, and violence.

  3. denopac says:

    Ivan Lendl did not become a US citizen until 1992.

  4. You know who else I don’t see on that list? Sweden. After Bjorn Borg became an international superstar, every kid in Sweden grabbed a racket, and soon you had the likes of Mats Wilander and Stephan Edberg vying for Number 1, plus a talented crop of lesser lights like Thomas Enqvist, Magnus Norman, Jonas Bjorkman, Anders Jarryd etc. And now, nothing.

    You know who else I don’t see on this list? Australia. Australian players absolutely dominated tennis for years and years, with Hall of Famers like Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe, and Rod Laver. Australia was so synonymous with tennis they had to make the Australian Open one of the Grand Slam tournaments. They still hold a grand slam every year in Australia, but evidently few Aussies are advancing.

    So times change. One of the reasons the US excelled at tennis during the latter days of the Cold War was they got some talented players defecting from the Soviet bloc. Take Martina Navratilova and Ivan Lendl off your list and the US run is less impressive by 26 Grand Slam singles titles.

    Tennis is different than most other sports because it only takes one person to make a country stand out. Name another men’s tennis player from Switzerland other than Roger Federer. You can’t. The golden age of Swiss tennis will come to a close as soon as he does.

    One day an American Roger Federer will emerge, and US tennis will rise again. In general though, tennis is probably suffering from the same ailment that has plagued baseball and boxing. Basketball and football draw the most talented American athletes these days, and until that changes, you will see more and more foreigners dominating the game.

    • GWO says:

      Actually, Switzerland is a bad example, because Stan Wawrinka is Swiss, and is ranked above Federer at the moment. But replace Swiss with Serbian, or British, and the point is very valid. In fact, the top 32 men is two Swiss, about 10 Spaniards and 20 other different countries.

    • Dr. G says:

      I always find it amusing when people don’t think baseball is drawing some of the most talented American athletes, but I suppose those are the same people not watching the game. While this may be part of the tennis equation, it’s clear to me that baseball has a comparable number of elite American athletes as the other professional sports leagues out there.
      For my money (ahem), here’s perhaps a more pertinent section from the International Business Times regarding money in 2014:
      “The disparity between the top earners in tennis and its most comparable sport, golf, is significantly greater. The 100th leading earner on the U.S. PGA Tour this year has thus far earned $652,782, 13.8 percent of the top earner’s $4.7 million. In contrast, the man 100th on tennis’s ATP tour earning list has received $147,976, just 4.1 percent of the top earner, Nadal, who has pulled in $3.6 million to date. The increased chasm continues lower down. The 200th best earner on the ATP Tour has taken in $40,752, just 1.1 percent of Nadal’s prize money. On the PGA Tour that that figure is 2.9 percent.”
      Some players, barely replacement level, make much more than the 100th man on the tennis list playing baseball, basketball or football. has Michael Cuddyer and Yeonis Cespedes tied at 99th in baseball with $10.5 million, or a bit under three times what the top ATP tour winner has accumulated this year. A number of players tied at 198 all make $5.5 million.
      Same website has Greg Monroe as the 100th top paid basketball player at just under $5.5 million, while those NFL players tied at 99th all make $4.75 million.
      Heck, baseball’s minimum wage (at least those in MLB) is $500,000, and that goes for 750 players (25 man rosters of 30 teams, not even including DL players). Compared to the 200th best earner on the ATP Tour at nearly $41k, perhaps some of the lack of elite American athletes in tennis is simply a money thing.

      • If you watch baseball, you know that many of the most athletically gifted players in today’s game come from Latin America. If Yasiel Puig grew up in the US, he’d be a linebacker.

        As for the monetary differential, that may be true, but only for the men’s side. Tennis is one of the few lucrative sports out there for female athletes. Richard Williams watched some tennis on tv and figured his daughters could be just as good, if not better, and decided to give them tennis lessons. It sure paid off. The wonder is that more girls didn’t follow in the Williams sisters footsteps. Of course, American women aren’t gravitating towards football so much as soccer.

        • Dr. G says:

          So if I watch baseball (hey! I do!), I know that “many of the most” athletically gifted players come from LA?
          I see those players, and they’re playing along side American athletes who are just as gifted, including (but not limited to): Troy Tulowitzki, Mike Trout (shouldn’t he be a linebacker if the football theory holds?), Giancarlo Stanton, Josh Donaldson, Johnathan Lucroy, Ian Kinsler and Jason Heyward.
          Hey, that’s a pretty random selection of players, right? Well, that’s 7 of the top 10 current leaders in WAR, according to ESPN, which probably has at least a bit of correlation to some gift of athleticism.
          And for what it’s worth, MLB announced at the beginning of the season that 224 out of 853 players on Opening Day rosters were born outside the US. I’m guessing that there’s not a disproportionate amount of the most athletically gifted players that come from that population, but that the percentages across native and non-US players is relatively equal.
          So, if you get a chance to watch baseball, take a look at the teammates of all those Latin American players you’re watching. They’re pretty good, too, and a lot of them are born in the US.

          • Byrne says:

            True that. Trout is one of the best athletes in the world period. He actually played high school QB & safety btw. Point guard in basketball and oh btw, he’s bowled a 300 game and is really really good at table tennis.

          • KidB says:

            The best athletes are playing basketball and football. Not baseball. Youth participation in baseball has been declining for years and won’t stop in said decline.

      • Mark says:

        Don’t you think that part of the monetary disparity (in comparing golf to tennis) goes to the nature of the sport? In golf, top 20 players have bad rounds from time to time and finish well down in the field (and even miss cuts occasionally). It is not uncommon for players ranked 50-100 to put together a few good rounds and finish in the top 10. There is much more variability in results week to week, which results in a wider spreading of prize money. My perception (and I don’t follow tennis as closely as I follow golf) is that it’s much more uncommon for a high ranked player to advance far through the field. And the very best players seem to get to the semis more often than not.

        • Byrne says:

          yes that’s true to an extent because of the idiotic points system. Really there is very little difference in say the #25 ranked ATP player as opposed to the #60 ranked player. The only difference is that the #25 player will be given auto-entries into the ATP level events and the #60 player may have to play a handful of challenger (essentially the ATP’s AAA) level events during the year to accrue their points.

          But that doesn’t change the problem with prize money disparity. Yes fans are showing up to see Fed and Nadal, but Fed and Nadal aren’t playing for the tour money because they’re making way more money in endorsements and sponsorships and exhibitions and so on. Fed or Nadal will make more in a 2 set exhibition event than they will for a Best of 5 set grand slam win. There are weeks during the year where there are 3 ATP level events going on at the same time in different countries. The tour needs the depth. Paying the depth squat doesn’t entice kids to play tennis. Here you can give up a sizable chunk of your kid’s childhood burying them in an academy or the USTA system to hope they can one day earn an accountant’s salary. Or they can just have a normal childhood, play multiple sports, go to college and become an accountant and earn equal money.

          • I learned with my kids to make sure it’s fun first. It shouldn’t be a job. I filled his AAU team with his buddies and hired a good, popular coach. Now the coach trains them in the off season and the kids are having a blast. No scholarships are in the making, but they’ll have some good glory years to remember and maybe play a little D3 ball. Training kids solely for scholarships is pretty silly. Poor kids can generally get grants to pay for college and academic scholarships pay out five times as much as athletic scholarships. The only exception, I’d say, is that because of Title IX girls softball and soccer players, and other girls sports stand a good chance of a free ride. For men, really only football and basketball have a significant number of full scholarships…. And the kid had better be a dominating player in HS to get one of them. Just being real good isn’t good enough.

  5. Carl says:

    Hi Joe,

    2 articles on the same day and you manage to talk about tennis, soccer and golf. Oh joy. Please write some baseball items soon. Royals run to first, top 100, heck even the decline of Jeter. Perhaps a Melo, Kidd, LeBron article is in you, just screaming to get out?

  6. Beffenette says:

    I wonder if so many athletic young men and women are choosing to play golf instead? Seems to me the demographics of those who would grow up playing tennis competitively overlap pretty well with those who play golf, and there certainly are a lot more athletic young golfers than before.

  7. chazzykc says:

    I share your concern for the decline of American tennis. I too was a competitive player through college and on the fringe tours for a couple years. Our infrastructure of academic tennis is too monolithic and elitist and no longer has the ability to grab outstanding young athletes and entice them to the greatest of court games.

    I have grown away from the USTA which has abandoned the youth development programs over time since morphing from the USLTA (which was the amateur operating body before Open tennis emerged in ’68.) Too bad for tennis. I still think it’s cyclical. We will bounce back again. I refuse to give that much credit to Bollettieri for the 80’s and 90’s influx…..though it is increasingly difficult to fairly argue my emotional refusal.

  8. Jonathan H. says:

    What happened to Ryan Harrison?

  9. Marc says:

    I grew up playing tennis, and coached tennis for a few years after becoming a teacher (until 2008). There’s a few reasons I’ve seen which inhibit the growth of tennis players in this country – based on how it used to be done (in addition to those mentioned).

    1. There were TONS of tennis courts built by municipalities during the 1970s and 80s, probably way too many for the general populace to use on a regular occasion. Unfortunately, one can not just put a few tennis courts around town and let them be – they need to be maintained, cultivated, improved. With budgets getting tighter and tighter, tennis courts were the first to go. When I played in middle school, the school had a tennis program, AND a big tournament at the end of the school year. It was a great way for athletes to find tennis, and push those who were dedicated to the sport, thereby raising the levels of all tennis players everywhere.
    2. Those athletes, who were once encouraged to play different sports in different seasons, are now pressured to focus on their best sport at too early an age. I remember when basketball players would join the tennis team to play doubles and improve their footwork. Today, there are basketball spring leagues, and the tennis teams attract National Honor Society kids looking to bolster their resumes for college.
    3. There was an article about a year ago discussing, as is popular these days, who the greatest player in tennis history is/was. Even Joe got into it here, but this particular article focused on, not the changes in racquets and technology, but rather court surfaces. About fifteen years ago the Powers That Be were worried that tennis was becoming too quick, and would be boring to watch with all these powerhouse servers dominating the game. Remember the run Ivanisevic had as a Wimbledon qualifier on the strength of his serve. ALL the major tournaments since then have slowed the surfaces of their courts down to prevent that from happening. In the United States, most of our courts still date from the time when surfaces were extremely quick, and I wonder if that doesn’t hinder our tennis players when they compete against the rest of the world. I know that as a kid growing up on red clay, it took me a few years to adapt my game so that I could compete and win on asphalt.

    *A little side note – that same article suggested that Federer, despite Nadal’s domination of him during their career, was still the greatest to have played the game. This article focused on how the changing of the surfaces has worked against Federer (conversely, favored Nadal) for most of his career. One would wonder if Nadal could have won against Federer at Wimbledon if they had kept the courts as quick as they were 15 years ago.

    HA! Found the article:

  10. Brad says:

    I’m a USTA member and over the last year I played in some leagues and some individual tournaments. Honestly, almost every player I encountered was a little strange(to say the least). These tennis players were unfriendly, anti-social, and unpleasantly geekish. It was bad and I wouldn’t bother writing this if they weren’t so bad. All told, I probably met over 50 tennis players and I can’t think of one single of them that seemed to be normal in any sense of the word.

    I withdrew from a team that was about to play in a USTA run 2 month long “league”. They were caught cheating and all their wins were rightfully turned to losses. Antisocial cheaters and it’s not like they would have received ANYTHING if they won the league anyway.

    Just another dollop of dispair. The USTA charges for everything and we’re not getting our money’s worth. I won the loss bracket in a tournament and I saw the tournament director nonchantly give the overall winner their trophy with the wal-mart sticker still attached. She didn’t say anything and it was obvious she didn’t care enough to have a picture taken or shake hands..just pathetic(Club Sport tournament summer 2013).

    I mentioned it to a tennis fan friend of me and he wondered out loud if this is why Americans aren’t doing very good in professional tennis.

    I’m letting my USTA membership expire next month.

    • I agree. Lots of drunks, cheats and miserable people to contend with. My son played some tournaments and we found out the coach was teaching him to “hook”, that is cheat on line calls. This was when he was 10 years old. That’s the culture in tennis apparently. My wife continued to play, but her team was full of cliques and drama queens. The play schedule was built around politics and who was better friends with who. Also, who will play with who was another bit of drama. it wasn’t built around who deserved to be playing on which line. Afterwards, the team would drink a lot and complain about the other team. That’s tennis these days. Really fun.

  11. […] and when she's gone the US will have basically no one in men's or women's. Joe Posnanski has a great blog post that covers the downfall of American tennis, if anyone cares. Anyway, Radek used to date Martina […]

  12. Bill Bondy says:

    To sum it up we have 300 million people living here, where are the tennis players Iwill tell you.The really good ones all can hit great ground strokes serve hard but they are like little robots we lack a training strategy as well as a mental toughness. Where is serve and volley where is that single handed slice backhand and most of all where is the drive and the passion. We need new people to set up training facilities for Americans. People come from all over to Florida to train but no American there has to be kids teens who will be great tennis players we have to find them. Let Sampras Or Johnny Mac or someone whos been there set up a program. Who discovered Novack some old lady come on .The Isners can hit a ton butgive me some old guy who can place the ball. In my lifetime I would like to some American champions.
    If Spain can do it look at them if Serbia or Russia we really need to get back in the game right now we have no one.The time is right we need a visionary really Martina whats wrong she knows help sos.
    Bill Bondy

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