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FORGOTTEN VICTORIES:
A History of Pro Tennis 1926-1945
Chapter XII: AMERICA, 1942

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Ray Bowers

(Note to readers: Earlier segments of the author’s history of the pro tennis wars told of the first pro tour in 1926; the subsequent eminence of European Karel Kozeluh and American Vincent Richards; of Tilden’s Year of Triumph in 1931; of Tilden and Nusslein, 1932-1933; of The Early Ascendancy of Vines, 1934; Vines's Second Year: 1935; Awaiting Perry, 1936; Perry and Vines, 1937; Readying for Budge, 1938; Budge's Great Pro Year, 1939 and America, 1940-1941.)


Pro tennis peaked in America in the first half of 1942. Donald Budge, who had slipped to third in the pro rankings for 1941, regained his playing trim early in the year. The new North American tour, produced by Alexis Thompson, featured Budge and Perry along with the top-ranked amateurs of 1941, Bobby Riggs and Frank Kovacs. It was probably the most lustrous touring line-up yet. Injuries would dampen the competition, however, and war-related problems would lead to an earlier-than-planned termination. Meanwhile other familiar pros, joined by several additional recruits from the U.S. amateur list, played an organized circuit of pro tournaments in the U.S. Southeast. The U.S. Pro Grasscourt tournament, held at Forest Hills at mid-year, saw Budge confirm his superiority atop the sport.

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TOUR OPENING

Budge and Riggs spent mid-December 1941 in New York preparing for the forthcoming tour. Perry arrived from Mexico City with new wife Sandra; Kovacs flew in from California. Tennis-watchers wondered about Don's physical recovery and whether Riggs could adapt his patient style to indoor canvas. Most thought that old pros Budge and Perry would probably prevail over the newcomers. Opening night at the Garden, December 26, 1941, before 11,000 watchers, many of them recipients of gift tickets, produced both dazzle and misfortune.

Budge faced Kovacs to open the program. The product was pure power tennis, where Kovacs's fury and brilliance kept the gallery in uproar. Kept off balance by Frank's hitting velocity, Budge in comparison seemed slow in his movement and inferior in stroking and volleying ability. Writers Hawthorne and Danzig agreed that the arena had never seen play such as that of the pro rookie in the first set. Although Budge managed to win the second set when Frank's control temporarily lapsed, Kovacs regained his dominance in closing out the third set and match, 64 26 64. The convincing defeat of the 1938 Grand Slam champion by the newcomer left the crowd stunned.

In the second match, Perry began poorly against Riggs. Bobby's accuracy and mobility kept Fred uncomfortable and on the move, unable to get his heavier shots working, so that Fred began answering Bobby's soft game with soft returns of his own. But after losing the first set, Fred returned to an attacking game--driving firmly, moving to net often, and once there volleying well, thereby capturing set two. The final set produced attacking brilliance by both players, both of them serving hard and volleying well. Bobby finally served for the match, ahead 54.

Then came the mishap from which the tour never fully recovered. Perry, running hard to reach a volley, caught his foot in the canvas and tumbled heavily, his right arm caught underneath. His arm in great pain, Fred lay on the floor, stamping his foot. With the gallery watching in dismay, Fred was carried off on a stretcher and taken to hospital.

Initial medical reports indicated that Perry might be out for only a week or so. Thompson moved quickly to find a temporary replacement. Overlooking John Nogrady, who had taken Perry's place in the doubles at the Garden, the young promoter instead signed Gene Mako--a familiar star in amateur tennis best known as Budge's former doubles partner. Mako had been chronically hampered in serving and overhead work by a damaged shoulder, though he had reached the singles final at the U.S. Nationals in 1938. Since then, however, he had slipped out of the U.S. top ten and had not played competitively in months.

The revised cast played three more engagements prior to the new year. In the featured match at Trenton on December 27, Riggs and Kovacs put forth a "stirring struggle." Frank took the first six games, but after that Bobby began fencing off Frank's power drives and, contrary to his reputation, moving often into forecourt, producing volleying that to Fred Hawthorne was "nothing less than dazzling." Bobby's exertions in winning the second set, however, left him little resistance to Frank's fresh onslaught of power, and Kovacs took the first sixteen points of the third set enroute to a comfortable finish. Two nights later in Washington, Riggs came from behind to defeat Budge in straight sets, and in Philadelphia on December 30 before a disappointing crowd of 2,500, Kovacs repeated his opening-night victory over Budge. Don started the evening well, showing his old battering style, but Frank unlimbered consistent backhands to the corners that kept Don on the run. But if Riggs and Kovacs showed well, Mako proved an inadequate singles replacement for Perry, losing his singles in straight sets on each occasion. After the first four engagements, the official W-L standings (which excluded the three matches involving Mako) were very different from what most watchers had expected.

Kovacs, 3-0
Riggs, 2-1
Budge, 0-3
Perry, 0-1

It had been an unexpectedly fine start for the prime rookies and a disappointing showing for Budge, who nevertheless predicted that he would soon recover his old form. Watchers noted that Don looked overweight and out of condition.

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THE RIGGS AND KOVACS STYLES

Californian Robert L. Riggs took Budge's place as world amateur champion in 1939, capturing both Wimbledon and U.S. Nationals at age 21. He failed to repeat at Forest Hills in 1940 but, with a forthcoming pro contract very much in his mind, Bobby regained the U.S. crown in 1941.

Though he had been a champion on grass, Riggs's best game was not one of great power. He could penetrate openings when they arose and was good at net but, lithe and smallish at height 5-7, Bobby's strengths were in patience, movement, and ball control. His ground strokes carried little topspin or backspin, were usually delivered with relatively little backswing, and were extremely accurate, typically clearing net by large margin unless his opponent had ventured forward. He knew where to place the ball in serving or stroking to keep his opponent at disadvantage, and his anticipation, mobility, and stamina made him excellent defensively. No-one lobbed better. Not concerned to show flashy play or spectacular winners, he was willing to defeat opponents by slow-balling, covering court well, and avoiding errors. Though he was a good retriever, in style he is better described as a placer of the ball. He called it "air-tight tennis." Bobby looked for ways to bet on himself, and had a reputation for cockiness. Bitsy Grant, a prime rival as an amateur, predicted that on clay Riggs would defeat Budge.

Kovacs, at age 22 was nearly two years younger than Riggs, of whom he was a direct opposite. Frank was rangy, about 6-4, and served with lethal velocity. Riggs termed Frank's stroking "tremendously powerful" from both sides--often brilliant but sometimes erratic. Generally uninterested in coming to net, Frank preferred beating opponents from backcourt. Budge later said that the Kovacs backhand was the best he had ever seen. (Tilden wrote that it was second only to Budge's.) Kovacs was known for emotional and playful on-court antics, and though opponents sometimes complained about his clowning, Frank's jollity would improve his box-office value as a pro. In serving he might toss several balls simultaneously, striking one of them, for example, or toss one ball very high while serving another one underhanded. Herald-Tribune writer Fred Hawthorne deemed Frank deficient in competitive will and concentration. Years later, Riggs and Tilden both concluded that Frank had scarcely tried to build on his tremendous natural talent.

WINTER TOUR

The first day of 1942 found the troupe in Atlantic City for the first of ten engagements, all in different cities, through January 14 in Chicago. Attendance was disappointing in most places, apparently held down by the nation's war focus. Perry returned to action on January 5 in Boston, having missed five performances. But the damaged elbow and arm were not yet right, and Fred lost seven consecutive matches upon his return before defeating Kovacs in their three-setter in Chicago.

Fred Hawthorne watched nearly all the early matches, reporting for New York Herald-Tribune. Riggs, he judged, was playing with more determination than as an amateur. Kovacs at his best reached "sheer brilliancy never before excelled," but at other times Frank played "surprisingly poor tennis." The renowned writer judged that Budge's slow start reflected Don's lack of recent competition, but that both Budge and Perry were showing signs of improving. The standings after the Chicago matches showed Riggs ahead.

Riggs, 9-4
Kovacs, 7-5
Budge, 6-6
Perry, 1-8

The tour now received another blow--an injury to Kovacs's forearm during an engagement on January 17 in Hamilton, Ontario. Mako was available as replacement, but the call instead went to Lester Stoefen in California, who arrived in time to perform in Buffalo January 20. Stoefen's big serve made him always dangerous and his scores often close, but Les proved little better than Mako in winning matches against the others. Meanwhile without clown prince Kovacs, the performances lost a bit as entertainment, though Perry's usual bantering partly made up the deficit. Promoter Thompson, however, was restless--Ellsworth Vines in California said that he was considering an offer from Thompson to join the troupe.

The itinerary next crossed the Midwest and swung into the South. Perry was now defeating not only Stoefen but also Riggs regularly. Bobby later wrote that Fred's return from injury had been remarkable, and confirmed that Fred's agility, stamina, and his "near-insulting" manner to his opponents remained. Budge moved into first place in the standings, and when Bobby missed several engagements with flu-like symptoms in early February, Don's four consecutive wins over Perry and Stoefen gave him a strong margin he would never relinquish. The announced standings after Charleston, South Carolina, on February 12 told the tale:

Budge, 26-10
Riggs, 18-15
Kovacs, 7-7
Perry, 16-17
Stoefen, 0-18

(The above standings excluded Mako's five and Stoefen's first three matches, which included a win by Les over Riggs at Louisville, January 23. The Kovacs and Stoefen records were sometimes shown combined but are separated here. Some matches were counted double to make up for matches not completed earlier. Where only three players were available on a given evening, a singles round-robin was played.)

Writers commented that the matches seemed highly competitive, indeed heated, more so than in previous tours, and they credited this to the announced pay scheme linked to the W-L standings. Meanwhile there were reports of off-court bickering among the cast, probably worsened by the cloudy rules for tallying wins and losses. The frictions sometimes showed on court. Perry once threatened to crack a racket over the head of Riggs; Bobby bristled at Kovacs's mocking of Bobby's waddling walk, Budge often showed irritation at the Kovacs antics, which now included somersaults. There was endless griping over line calls amid occasions of self-centered and temperamental behavior. Al Ennis called all of them "squawkers," but later said that in contrast to the others, Riggs was "a real trouper."

After one or two doubles-only appearances, Kovacs returned for singles duty on February 13. Meanwhile Perry's arm problems worsened and his losses again mounted, so that Fred left the tour for good in early March. Stoefen re-joined the troupe in Tucson on March 14 as Perry's replacement. The cast stayed the same thereafter, except that Tilden replaced Stoefen at Pan-Pacific Auditorium in Los Angeles, March 31, for a purported grudge match against Kovacs, won by Frank.

More than the others, Riggs varied his court tactics with the occasion. Writer Whitey Kelley of Miami Herald wrote with amazement at Bobby's ability on March 1 to slug it out with Budge from the baseline. The two exchanged "withering backhand cross-courts" for most of the first set. After winning that set, Bobby then shifted to defensive play, at which, Kelley noted, "he has no equal." Riggs also on occasion showed excellence in attacking net--sometimes a useful reply to Budge's strength off the ground. Bobby's serving also held up well--one night on a fast court in San Antonio Riggs out-aced his opponent Kovacs. Meanwhile Budge and Kovacs largely persisted in their heavy serving and stroking styles. Stoefen, as always, drew gasps for his spectacular serve, which had been recently timed at 131.5 mph from impact to bounce. Local reporters everywhere deemed that the paying customers received their money's worth, and some raved about the quality of that evening's program.

Disappointing attendance, shortages of gasoline and tires, and loss of several bookings where arenas were converted to war uses all contributed to the decision to call off the tour several weeks before its scheduled finish. The announcement came on April 6 following a performance in Palm Springs. Thompson absorbed the financial losses, and the young promoter honored his monetary guarantees to players. Riggs later wrote explaining that his contract called for a guarantee unrelated to the announced competitive scheme.

The long tour was by no means a sporting failure. Tour publicist Al Ennis summarized matters at the conclusion. There had been a total of 71 engagements, including 25 where all four original principals performed. Budge was conclusively the tour winner, with W-L margins of 15-10 over Riggs, 12-5 over Kovacs, 15-3 against Perry, and 10-0 against Stoefen. Ennis judged that Budge's winning margin against Riggs came from the superior point-finishing power of Don's backhand along with Don's ability to match Bobby in avoiding errors. Against Kovacs, Don faced a serve and backhand essentially equal with his own, but Frank's inability to concentrate, Ennis deemed, turned matters in Don's favor. The tour's final standings here are from Ennis, where the caveats for the February 12 tally, given above, again apply.

Budge, 52-18
Riggs, 36-36
Kovacs, 25-26
Perry, 23-30
Stoefen, 2-28

The doubles play was sometimes heated, fed by competition for a nightly bonus provided by Thompson and by irritations spilling over from the singles and from off court. Budge-Mako won three of their five early-tour matches against Kovacs-Riggs. After that, overwhelmingly the most successful doubles player was Budge, whether paired with Riggs, Perry, or Stoefen. Kovacs and Riggs were often partners despite their coolness to one another, overall showing more losses than wins.

WINTER TOURNAMENTS

The Florida pro circuit of winter 1942 offered for the first time an orderly sequence of tournaments with enticing prize money. The superstars were away on the main tour, but the seven tournaments assembled twenty or so other pro veterans along with two talented recruits from the amateur ranks--Wayne Sabin and Welby Van Horn.

Sabin, nearly 26, was a smallish, crafty player--a tactician, but one who also liked to hit firmly. Wayne had been a close rival of Riggs when both were amateurs in 1941, and in turning pro he made known his belief that he could sweep the planned Florida circuit. The Oregon native was esteemed as a doubles player, and had reached the doubles final of the recent U.S. Nationals. Meanwhile Van Horn, from California, was tall and strong, comparable to Kovacs in playing style though without Frank's superior serve and backhand. Welby at age 19 had been Riggs's final-round opponent in the U.S. Nationals of 1939. Another new pro was Bob Harman, former player at University of California. Gardnar Mulloy, who had been Sabin's partner in the U.S. doubles final, considered turning professional with Wayne but decided against doing so.

All seven Florida tournaments were played outdoors, largely if not entirely on clay. Of the seven events, Sabin won five, Dick Skeen, now age 37, won two. Listed here are the events and the final-round scores:

Orlando, Jan 27-Feb 2, 1942, Sabin d. Gledhill 46 63 86 62
Romey Plaza, Miami Beach, Feb 2-8, 1942, Sabin d. Van Horn 61 75 60
Gulf Stream Pro, West Palm Beach, Feb 9-16, 1942, Skeen d. Sabin 16 1311 75 97
Dixie Pro, Tampa, Feb 17-22, 1942, Sabin d. Barnes 64 62 64
Fort Lauderdale, Mar 1-8, 1942, Skeen d. Barnes 64 63 61
Daytona Beach, Mar 9-15, 1942, Sabin d. Skeen 36 63 63 60
Southern Pro, Univ. of Miami, Mar 18-22, 1942, Sabin d. Skeen 63 46 61 64

Sabin's victories in the first two tournaments vindicated his earlier confidence. Skeen, coming off a strong year in 1941, began the circuit poorly, losing to Gledhill and Van Horn in the first two events. His fortune turned in a three-hour win at West Palm Beach over Sabin, where Dick showed little emotion in matching the fine strokes of the pro rookie in windy conditions. A pleased fan afterwards remarked, "If that's pro tennis, give us more of it." A week later in Tampa Skeen was knocked out by Barnes, but in early March in Fort Lauderdale Dick defeated both Sabin and Bruce. Watchers at Fort Lauderdale noted that Dick's firmer, lower-trajectory strokes seemed less affected by the persisting strong winds than were the shots of his opponents.

Joining the cast at Daytona, March 9-15, was Lester Stoefen, who was between stints as substitute player on the transcontinental tour. Stoefen reached the quarters against Van Horn and played well in winning the second set, but the veteran pro faded thereafter amid very hot conditions. The quarter-finals also spelled trouble for favorites Sabin and Skeen, both of whom needed five sets to defeat Harman and Faunce, respectively. In the semis Van Horn, who was now known for having twice broken rackets against the fence in one of the earlier tournaments, now succumbed to Skeen in four close sets. Meanwhile Sabin beat Barnes, and in the final round Wayne defeated the harder-hitting Skeen by soft-balling amid the high heat and humidity. One observer thought that Dick plainly disliked the deep, high-bouncing rollovers from Wayne but became too tired to persist in coming to net.

A week later, Sabin cemented his excellent season in winning the last tournament, at University of Miami, behind many drop shots and lobs. The event was played in part under lights arranged by the tournament director, Gardnar Mulloy, who was amateur coach at the university.

Total prize money at each event was generally about $1,000. Sabin collected $360 at Miami Beach, for example--$240 for winning the singles, $120 for his share of the doubles. Of the six events where doubles results are known, Sabin-Van Horn won three, Barnes-Harman two. Both these pairs also finished second twice.

All participants agreed that the circuit showed a long-needed level of organization among the pros. Sabin was unabashed in saying that the Florida tournaments had been of higher quality than recent amateur events. The circuit champion attributed his improved concentration and determination to the motivation of prize money. The feeling was general among the players that the list of active pros was now superior to that of the amateurs.

PINEHURST

Bobby Riggs, fresh from the big tour where most play was indoors, in late April joined the recent Florida cast for the fifth annual North and South pro tournament, held outdoors at Pinehurst, North Carolina. Bobby reached the semis, but there his prowess in defense and stroking proved inadequate against Dick Skeen's stronger and relentless power hitting. Our unnamed observer from American Lawn Tennis wrote that three or four successive drives to the corners by Dick would usually suffice to move Riggs out of position, giving Skeen openings either to move forward for angled volleys or perhaps to punish Bobby's lobs. Bobby won the third set to stay alive, but Skeen then again began finding the lines with "machine-like precision," closing out his win in four sets. Another watcher, Fred Hawthorne, wrote that the startling upset reflected Skeen's "consistent hard hitting backed by remarkable control."

Van Horn defeated Bruce Barnes by relentless strong hitting and serve-and-volley play. But Welby was then crushed in the semis by Wayne Sabin's superior precision and depth. One watcher noticed that Sabin wisely avoided Van Horn's forehand volley, leaving Welby in trouble in all other situations.

Thus it became another Sunday showdown between Sabin and Skeen. This one was over in 49 minutes, Wayne answering Dick's power to the corners with firm, deep replies that allowed the Californian few openings. When Skeen ventured forward, Sabin's shots often found either the lines or the Skeen feet. Wayne made only seven errors during the match. It was air-tight tennis of the Riggs style but at a level that Bobby had failed to produce earlier. The day before, on Saturday, Riggs-Van Horn won the doubles. Total prize money was $2,000.

North and South Pro, Pinehurst, N.C., 13-19 April 1942
(SF) Skeen d. Riggs, 62 63 46 62, Sabin d. Van Horn 60 63 60
(F) Sabin d. Skeen 63 62 61
(D) Riggs-Van Horn d. Sabin-Buxby 63 119 64

U.S. PRO GRASSCOURT

A field of thirty took over the grass courts at Forest Hills in late June for the sixteenth edition of the U.S. Pro. Florida competitors Sabin, Barnes, and Harman were eager to cross rackets with tour superstars Budge, Riggs, and Kovacs. Also on hand were Karel Kozeluh, Berkeley Bell, and John Nogrady. Skeen was not present, and Perry was also out of the action because of his damaged arm.

The field was reduced to twelve on first Saturday and Sunday, June 20 and 21, then further reduced to eight when play resumed Thursday afternoon. None of the eight survivors had yet lost a set, but in the quarter-finals on Friday the favorites faced closer opposition. Riggs was carried to five sets by Bob Harman, who displayed what Allison Danzig called "a beautiful backhand." Both players used drop shots often, where Riggs was the master. Kovacs was for a while outsteadied by Frank Rericha, who won the first set and nearly won the second before bowing. Budge split the first two sets with Nogrady and fell behind 42 in the third set. Their struggle pleased lovers of hard hitting, while Nogrady's drop-shot mastery gave Budge "a sore trial." But ultimately Budge obtained his expected victory, according to Danzig by stepping up his footwork, reducing his errors, and raising his pressure. Finally, Sabin won in four sets after facing "a real fight" from Bruce Barnes.

Rain prevented semi-final play on Saturday the 27th, but on Sunday before 6,000 Budge "turned loose his full fury" in eliminating Sabin in straight sets. Wayne's droppers kept the scores reasonably close, noted Danzig, but by the third set Sabin became tired from fighting off the pressure and Don became "invincible." Meanwhile Riggs defeated Kovacs in four sets, overcoming Frank's power and occasional spells of "superman-like play" with Bobby's brand of variety and controlled attack. American Lawn Tennis called it "a magnificent match," where Riggs often answered Frank's power with pace of his own followed by net attack and closing volleys.

Thus it was Budge against Riggs for the championship on Saturday July 4. Budge had seldom played better, wrote Danzig, staying with the relentless ground-stroke power and occasional net attack familiar to long-time Budge-watchers. Bobby answered with all his tactical variety, but the heaviness of Budge's artillery was too much to withstand. It was over in one hour. Budge had never been mightier, wrote Hawthorne.

Afterwards Alice Marble joined three male pros in a doubles exhibition, and in the tournament's doubles final, Budge-Riggs defeated Barnes-Kovacs in four sets. The final-day gallery numbered 7,000-8,500, depending on the observer. (New York Times would report that the late-summer final of the U.S. Nationals at Forest Hills, pitting amateurs Schroeder and. Parker, drew 9,000.)

U.S. Pro Grass-court, Forest Hills, 20 June-4 July 1942
(QF) Budge d. Nogrady 61 26 64 61, Sabin d. Barnes 75 57 61 64, Riggs d. Harman 63 36 61 46 61, Kovacs d. F. Rericha 62 36 60 97
(SF) Budge d. Sabin 62 75 63, Riggs d. Kovacs 64 36 86 62
(F) Budge d. Riggs 62 62 62
(D) Budge-Riggs d. Kovacs-Barnes 26 63 64 63

RANKINGS FOR 1942

Clearly first among the pros for 1942 was Donald Budge, champion of the winter tour and at Forest Hills. Candidates for second place were Riggs, Kovacs, and Sabin, where Riggs ranked slightly ahead of Kovacs from his tour results and also for winning their semi at Forest Hills. Placing Sabin is difficult, as he did not directly face either of the others, though his performance at Pinehurst exceeded Riggs's and his scores in losing to Budge at Forest Hills were somewhat better than Bobby's. We rank Sabin in a tie with Riggs for second place, making Kovacs fourth. (In rankings announced in early 1943, USPLTA placed Budge, Riggs, Sabin, and Kovacs in that order.) Our second four are Perry, who surpassed Riggs for part of the winter despite the arm injury, Skeen at #6, and Barnes and Van Horn, tied for #7.

For our combined pro-amateur ranking. we place the top five pros ahead of the official U.S. amateur list headed by Schroeder and Parker, who occupy our #6 and #7 positions. Professional Skeen is our #8. First place in our pro doubles ranking belongs to Budge-Riggs, ahead of Budge-Perry and Sabin-Van Horn, tied for second.

Frank Kovacs took the oath entering U.S. Army a few days after the conclusion at Forest Hills. Most of the other leading pros in America would also enter military service in coming months. The interval 1943-1944 would quietly close the sport's formative era even as thoughts stirred for a new beginning ahead, after the horror.

--Ray Bowers
Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.

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This column is copyrighted by Ray Bowers, all rights reserved.

Following interesting military and civilian careers, Ray became a regular competitor in the senior divisions, reaching official rank of #1 in the 75 singles in the Mid-Atlantic Section for 2002. He was boys' tennis coach for four years at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Virginia, where the team three times reached the state Final Four. He was named Washington Post All-Metropolitan Coach of the Year in 2003. He is now researching a history of the early pro tennis wars, working mainly at U.S. Library of Congress. A tentative chapter, which appeared on Tennis Server, won a second-place award from U.S. Tennis Writers Association.

Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ray by using this form.


 

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Sony Open Tennis Session 14 Tickets Miami Men's Singles 3rd Round Women's Singles 4th Round Key Biscayne FL Crandon Park Center
Sony Open Tennis Session 15 Tickets Miami Men's Singles 4th Round Women's Singles Quarterfinals Key Biscayne FL Crandon Park Center
Sony Open Tennis Session 16 Tickets Miami Men's Singles 4th Round Women's Singles Quarterfinals Key Biscayne FL Crandon Park Center

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Sony Open Tennis Session 22 Tickets Miami Men's Singles Semifinals Women's Doubles Semifinals Key Biscayne FL Crandon Park Center
Sony Open Tennis Session 23 Tickets Miami Woman's Singles Final Men's Doubles Final Key Biscayne FL Crandon Park Center
Sony Open Tennis Session 24 Tickets Miami Men's Singles Final Women's Doubles Final Key Biscayne FL Crandon Park Center
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