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November 2, 2008 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Handicapping Doha and Shanghai
by Ray Bowers

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

November brings the season-ending WTA and ATP championship round-robins. The women's event, November 4-9, will be at a new location--Doha, Qatar--and the men's, also known as Masters Cup, will follow one week later in Shanghai. Qualifying to enter will be the eight top singles performers, male and female, in the year-to-date points races. The year-end round-robins are second only to the Slams in the number of points awarded to the winners, and their results are the final inputs to the annual pro rankings. In my understanding, both will be carried in entirety to America by The Tennis Channel.

WOMEN'S 2008 RACE

The retirement from pro tennis in spring 2008 of last year's women's champion, Justine Henin, greatly changed the outlook for the current year's race. Maria Sharapova was the early leader after capturing Australian Open 08 without loss of a set, but shoulder trouble limited her success during the spring and largely sidelined her for the rest of the year. First place in the 2008 race passed to the new champion at Garros, Ana Ivanovic. Although Venus Williams then won Wimbledon by defeating Serena in the final round, it was Ana's coutrywoman, Jelena Jankovic, who took over the lead, holding it except for a short interval when Serena Williams captured U.S. Open, defeating Jankovic in the final.

During the fall, Jelena played with assurance and firmness in winning China Open in Beijing and the Porshe in Stuttgart in early October, while Serena was largely inactive. Meanwhile the 23-year-old Serbian star also took the lead in the running 12-month tally. (Note that the year-to-date race and the running 12-month tally tend to align as the calendar year nears its end.)

The October tournaments confirmed the eight qualifiers for Doha, along with the prime alternate. All the entrants are capable of contending well against Jankovic, the current race leader and, in my opinion, the narrow favorite at Doha. The evaluations on each player, next, rely heavily on recent tv-watching from Europe via Tennis Channel along with a compilation of head-to-head play within the group starting with Wimbledon 08. (The W-L values from this compilation are shown below, along with my odds for winning Doha).

1. JELENA JANKOVIC, W-L within the group 7-4, odds for Doha 3-1.

Jelena's fine run continued in winning the Tier One event Kremlin Cup, 6-12 October. The semi-final between Jankovic and Elena Dementieva, the gold medalist at Olympics 08, was topsy-turvy in its flow.

For one set, Dementieva was comfortably in control, pouncing on every ball, ripping away to the corners, pressing Jankovic into persistent trouble. Many of the games were long, but Elena won all of them. It was first set to Dementieva, 60. Then the points and games became hard-fought, but with Elena beginning to miss occasionally, now it was Jankovic winning all of them. Whenever a point lengthened beyond ten or twelve shots, it was Jelena able to overcome her breathlessness, while it was usually Dementieva who eventually surrendered the point-ending error or foolish drop-shot try. By the end, Elena's tiredness became obvious. Jankovic d. Dementieva 06 61 60.

Jelena's stroking power is not extreme but it is usually very accurate, delivered with relatively short backswing from either side. She is capable of outright winners from inside baseline, but typically her shots are only moderately forcing in direction or power. In that mode--i.e., playing within herself while avoiding errors--she seems sure in the knowledge of her own superior court mobility and tenacity.

These strengths and styles were seen even more impressively against Vera Zvonareva in the Moscow final. The slowish indoor court made it hard for either player to end points with a single strike--conditions that suited Jelena, whose fine court movement allowed her to answer most of Vera's best thrusts. The first set was Jelena's, comfortably, and although Vera stepped up her play in the second, twice equalizing from a service-break down, there never seemed much doubt as to the final verdict. Jankovic d. Zvonareva 62 64.

2. VENUS WILLIAMS, W-L in group 5-2, odds 4-1

The cast reassembled for the Tier II event at Zurich, October 13-19, where Jankovic lost her first match, to Flavia Pennetta, who would then continue her recent strong play to reach the Sunday final and a meeting with another of our elites, Venus Williams.

Pennetta had beaten Venus in three of their four past meetings, including the week before in Moscow. The Italian star, playing what must have been her best-ever tennis, showed plenty of fire in her strokes, scarcely less than Venus's except when the tall American occasionally used her most extreme power. Venus had the stronger, more forcing serve, and her court range was slightly the greater, and she liked to stand inside baseline in returning serve as if to intimidate her opponent with her quickness and reach. The two provided many dazzling exchanges, Pennetta showing some excellent ability to transfer body momentum and torque into her power ground strokes. But all her good work was lost when Flavia lost six straight points and a moment later the tiebreak game that ended set one.

Venus's excellent avoidance of error took even greater effect in the second set, while Pennetta's blows seemed diminished in precision from her strenuous first-set effort. Now, the edge in extended rallies seemed to lie with Venus. It was an impressive victory for the American. Venus over Pennetta 76 62.

Venus's strong record within the Doha group, shown at the top, mainly reflects her winning of Wimbledon 08 and reaching the quarters at U.S. Open. But there is also a win over Ivanovic at Zurich, one over Safina in Stuttgart, and a loss in split sets to Jankovic at Stuttgart. She appears to be fully healthy, playing well within herself, patiently, with her usual excellent emotional control. At #8 in the race she is the lowest-ranking player of the eight qualifiers, but I believe her chances at Doha are second only to Jankovic's.

3. SERENA WILLIAMS, W-L 4-2, odds 6-1.

Serena's chances are, as often happens, enigmatic, as she has stayed on the sidelines since U.S. Open except for losing her first match at Stuttgart after winning the first set at love. Undoubtedly she could contend strongly for the crown at Doha if she is physically right. In the season-ending event last year, held in Madrid, she withdrew from the round-robin phase after losing her first set, showing great disappointment at having to do so. The many uncertainties as to her present readiness require placing her behind both Jankovic and Venus.

4. DINARA SAFINA, W-L 5-4, odds 7-1.

Dinara Safina had a superb spring and summer 2008, including winning the silver medal at the Olympics and reaching the semis at U.S. Open. In September she won the Pan Pacific in Tokyo, defeating Kuznetsova in the final, 61 63. Having shown what seemed a new level of control in her power stroking along with improved court mobility, she thus reached third place in the year-to-date race at mid-September. Indeed, she twice defeated Jankovic during the summer--at Los Angeles and at the Olympics. Starting at Wimbledon, she lost only once to a player outside the Doha group--the fewest of any group member. Her losses to Serena at U.S. Open and to Venus at Stuttgart place her fourth in our hierarchy for Doha.

5. ANA IVANOVIC, W-L 2-1, odds 9-1.

After winning Garros 08 Ana Ivanovic injured her right thumb, leading to a spell of inactivity and uncharacteristic losses. In early October, she lost in her first match at Kremlin Cup, but she then won twice at Zurich before losing in a three-setter to Venus. The upward surge continued in the Tier II at Linz, which she won, convincingly defeating Zvonareva in the final amid a barrage of accurate rocketry. It appeared that she was at last again close to her best. At age 20, she is the youngest of the eight Doha qualifiers. One year ago at Madrid she emerged from the round-robin phase at W-L 2-1 before bowing in straight sets to Henin in the event's semis.

6. ELENA DEMENTIEVA, W-L 3-3, odds 12-1.

Elena Dementieva defeated Serena Williams at the Olympics and went on to capture the gold medal. She battled closely in losing to Jankovic at U.S. Open, and again lost to Jelena in their strange meeting in Moscow, noted above. Probably explaining her collapse in Moscow was declining stamina following her two immediately preceding matches, both three-setters, both settled in tiebreak games. She returned to action at Luxembourg, 20-26 October, winning the tournament.

Dementieva is always fascinating to watch as she uses her athletic physique to position herself for highly potent forehands and backhands. Her once-troublesome serve is now often an attacking weapon, although always seemingly at the edge of dissolution.

7. SVETLANA KUZNETSOVA, W-L 1-5, odds 20-1.

Svetlana is an experienced, hard-hitting, and athletic competitor--a perennial member of the contingent of Russkayas who have dominated women's pro tennis in recent years. Probably Svetlana's foremost achievement this year was in winning two singles matches in Russia's Fed Cup final-round victory over Spain. She has qualified for the year-ending singles event three times, failing to reach the semis from the round-robin phase in all cases. Her only win over the others in our head-to-head compilation came in split sets against Jankovic at Tokyo--an outcome promptly reversed by Jelena at Beijing in straight sets.

8. VERA ZVONAREVA, W-L 1-5, odds 25-1.

It has been a good year for Zvonareva, who jumped nicely in the rankings. Her improvement was evident in watching her semi-final win over Safina at Moscow. Both had been medalists at Olympics 08. On this date, both displayed power tennis, trying to move opponent aggressively. Safina, who was the slightly larger player and also better at delivering body weight into her artillery, possessed the greater stroking and serving power. Meanwhile Zvonareva threw boundless energy into her deliveries. Vera, who was at first superior in avoiding error, took the first set. But the second set was dead-even, both players holding serve amid many well-contested points. Matters ended in a tense tiebreaker where all points were decided by unforced errors on the part of two jittery players. Zvonareva d. Safina, 62 76.

Vera lost in the next day's final to Jankovic and also in her first match the following week in Zurich. But she surged again at Linz one week later, scorching the corners in defeating Marion Bartoli in their semi-final meeting. But against Ivanovic in the final, Vera seemed unable to cope with the higher level of sustained power imposed by her opponent. Ivanovic d. Zvonareva 62 63.

9. AGNIESZKA RADWANSKA, W-L 1-3, odds 100-1.

The prime alternate for Doha is the teen-aged Agnieszka Radwanska, who at #10 is just behind the injured Sharapova in the women's race and just ahead of Pennetta. Most of her points came from wins over lesser opponents in early and middle rounds. At Linz last week, she reached the semis where she forced Ivanovic to the limit, nearly prevailing--just one day before Ana's strong win over Zvonareva. Agnieszka's is a balanced, hard-hitting brand of tennis that has lifted her ahead of the world's other rising teen-agers. But she seems not yet ready to produce a sequence of wins over the higher-ranked players.

The odds quoted above reflect that Jankovic is the most probable winner, followed by the Williamses, Safina, and Ivanovic, in that order. Only the absence of Sharapova (and of course Henin) dulls the field.

MEN'S 2008 RACE

The early leader in the men's race was Novak Djokovic, winner at Australian Open and at Indian Wells. Rafael Nadal's strong clay-season run, including his fourth-straight triumph at Garros, raised the once-Wunderkind into the top place, and Rafa's successes on grass at Queen's and Wimbledon strengthened his margin. Perennial champion Roger Federer, now 27, had been weakened by mononucleosis early in the year, but his runner-up finishes at Garros and Wimbledon moved him to second place in the year-to-date race. Next, Nadal victories in Canada and the Olympics were roughly balanced by Federer's U.S. Open triumph, leaving the Mallorcan still safely ahead in September. But Nadal had been beaten in the U.S. Open semis by a younger player, Andy Murray, 21, whose rise to #4 added a fourth superstar to the elite echelon. The Masters Series indoor tournaments at Madrid and Paris lay ahead, together likely to produce insights into possible outcomes at Shanghai.

All the leading contenders were on hand at Madrid, October 12-19. The wonderful coverage by Tennis Channel seemed almost nonstop.

SEMI AT MADRID: MURRAY d. FEDERER 36 63 75

Andy Murray was slightly the better first-server, slightly the better mover and counter-puncher, slightly more inclined to be the aggressor, certainly the more animated player throughout. Roger had won his earlier matches of the week by playing conservatively, opening up his full arsenal only when the finish line was in sight. Again he fed his opponent a steady diet of softish backhand slices, varied forehands and backhands, keeping Murray moving, working the corners and sides. Meanwhile Andy was usually able to thwart Roger's stronger thrusts, often answering with forcing shots of his own, seemingly helping cement Roger in his careful strategy. The result was that the score stayed close, but the cautious pattern allowed Murray to control matters, confident in his ability to prevail as long as he held down his own errors.

SIMON d. NADAL 36 75 76

Gilles Simon, 23, next became the tournament's biggest surprise. With a marvelous backhand two-hander, good court temperament, and an affinity for the indoor court, he reached the final four in Madrid by defeating the tall Croatian Ivo Karlovic, who had beaten Djokovic in two tiebreak sets. Simon now faced the world's #1, Rafael Nadal, in the semis.

It was by far the most intriguing tennis of the week. For most of the way, both men played a defensive, moderately forcing style, running each other about with fierce forehands and backhands. Both were extremely good defenders amid countless very long points, both trying to keep pressure on opponent while avoiding extreme risk. Nadal's deliveries carried their familiar heavy overspin, but the answering ability of Gilles Simon and his flatter, higher-velocity strikes was better suited to the relatively fast court and the raised Madrid elevation. The stamina of Simon in longish matches and tournaments was seen, along with his resilience whenever he fell behind. In several spells where the edge swung to favor Nadal, Rafa seemed to ease up in his forcing play, instead content to float over softer, spinning deliveries. Like Federer's similar tactics against Murray, this seemed to open the way for longer points and allowed Simon to choose opportunities to seize the initiative.

MADRID FINAL: MURRAY d. SIMON, 64 76

Andy Murray had moved through the week comfortably, winning four matches with loss of only one set (his first set against Federer). Unseeded Gilles Simon, lacking a first-round bye, had played and won five matches--all of them three-setters. In two of his wins, Simon had survived adverse match points. The Sunday final began tamely, both men playing defensive, nonforcing tennis. When Simon fell behind in serving game five, he stepped up his play, seeking to open opportunities for attacking. He was at first successful but things went quickly awry, resulting in the set's only break of serve. After that, the pattern continued--Murray rallying very conservatively and showing himself the less likely to make error. Simon remained more likely to step up matters, but after every successful thrust, his attacking seemed to falter on the next point. Murray closed out the set with a powerful serving game.

Both men raised their forcefulness in the second set. Murray--the taller and stronger of the two--had a clear edge in serving, leading one-sidedly in total aces. Both now tried harder to open up points, and as the action heated up, the crowd became highly energized. In the set-ending tiebreaker, both players initiated a surprising number of drop shots. But with Simon ahead in the tiebreak point score, 6-4, Murray pulled off a successful dropper and then ripped three consecutive attacking shots, saving the two set points and closing out the match, all in a period of less than two minutes. At the finish, it seemed fairly obvious that Simon was the more tired player--the result of his far more strenuous path to the final.

PARIS INDOORS

The last major tournament came two weeks later, at the historic Paris indoors in Bercy, starting October 26. All the top players were again on hand, with a member the Big Four again heading each quarter. Also present was Davydenko, who had already qualified for Shanghai, along with Roddick, del Potro, and Simon, all for the moment inside the first eight but still in jeopardy. Once again, the first of the Big Four to depart was Djokovic--at the hands of the player who had stretched him mightily in their final-round meeting at Australian Open 08.

PARIS: 3RD ROUND: TSONGA d. DJOKOVIC, 64 16 63.

Powerful and athletic at 6-2 and 200 pounds, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga's year had been disappointing after his dazzling run at Melbourne Park. Following knee surgery, he had been sidelined from mid-May until U.S. Open. He flashed success in defeating Djokovic in Bangkok in late September, but showed mediocre results elsewhere in the fall. Now, he won his first match at Paris, defeating Stepanek in a fascinating encounter, where the veteran Czech star showed his remarkable variety but was gradually overtaken by Jo-Wilfried's energy and force.

Facing Djokovic, Tsonga captured a close first set, outscoring his opponent in winners and showing his heavyweight serving and stroking along with good aggressiveness in coming forward and surprising agility in close-in exchanges. Djokovic seemed slightly below form but kept matters close until Jo-Wilfried's serving and overhead prowess finally closed out the first set. Then in set two, inexplicably, the lustre faded from Tsonga's play and Djokovic stepped up matters, winning the set one-sidedly. The Serbian favorite seemed safe.

But from start to finish in the third set, Jo-Wilfried again revealed the heights he showed in Australia. Djokovic was playing well--rallying with excellent power and control, trying to put steady pressure on his opponent, taking forecourt often. But Jo-Wilfried was ablaze. His serves and rockets were now regularly finding the lines, his mobility neutralizing Djokovic's attacking power, his own net game superb, an occasional overspin lob deadly. Sometimes Tsonga's extreme weight of shot alone sufficed to produce weak reply from Djokovic, usually thereby allowing Jo-Wilfried an even more crushing blast. The critical service break of the third set came in game two, closed out by two absolutely brilliant passing-shot winners, both on the run, by Tsonga. Djokovic persisted, now playing at close to his best, but he could not sustain enough mustard to reverse the brilliance of his powerful, hard-charging opponent.

THE SURVIVORS

Mid-week produced more trouble for the Big Four as well as for the Madrid runner-up, Gilles Simon, who was stifled by an Andy Roddick at his best. David Nalbandian, the tournament's defending champion, repeated his Madrid win over del Potro, who emerged still among the eight qualifiers for Shanghai though facing early surgery for toe/foot problems. Then in the quarters, Nalbandian surprised Andy Murray, again outplaying his opponent in David's brand of forcing, "all-court, cat-and-mouse tennis." Nalbandian's power nearly equaled Murray's, and his quickness and unpredictability in seizing net produced many splendid volleying winners.

Soon afterwards, Rafa Nadal withdrew with knee/leg trouble after losing the first set to a Nicolay Davydenko at his best. Then for much of the way, Roddick outplayed an erratic Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who showed only samples of the brilliance seen in his third set against Djokovic along with far too many unforced mistakes. But gradually Tsonga's examples of spectacular play began to overshadow his inconsistency. With both players attacking net often, and with both achieving more winners than unforced errors, it was the bolder-striking, better-at-net Tsonga who prevailed. Finally, completing the departures of the Big Four, back trouble caused Roger Federer to conceded a walkover to James Blake.

PARIS SEMIS: TSONGA d. BLAKE, 64 63, NALBANDIAN d. DAVYDENKO 61 57 64

It was hard to believe that tennis has ever been played with greater perfection and force than as performed by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in his serving games against James Blake.

There was no evidence of tiredness in Jo-Wilfried from his long road to the semis. Serving at very high first-serve percentage, with many aces, Tsonga never faced an adverse break point. His prowess at net remained, though there were fewer occasions than recently for showing it. Blake competed reasonably well in his own serving games, winning seven of ten, but James--himself a highly athletic and powerful player--was clearly the lesser in both areas on this day, as well as the more error-prone.

Earlier in the afternoon, David Nalbandian produced his moderately forcing brand of airtight tennis to move ahead of a slow-starting Davydenko. But as the first set ended and the second began, Davydenko began showing the flair that often marks his play, while Nalbandian retreated into a more-patient style. It was now Nicolay the aggressor, striking more winners though also committing more errors than his opponent. His aggressive play produced the break of serve that ended the second set.

The final set brought many sizzling points, with both moving the other relentlessly about the court, both playing full-court, cat-and-mouse tennis albeit without the element of ferocity seen in Tsonga's matches. A single lapsed serving game became the demise of the Russian.

PARIS FINAL, TSONGA d. NALBANDIAN, 63 46 64

The final-round showdown carried an unusual and appealing twist. Whichever man--Tsonga or Nalbandian--won their meeting would qualify for Shanghai. The loser would not.

Nalbandian lost serve in the second game of the match, contributing two double-faults. Only once during the first set did the Argentine threatened to equalize. That came in the seventh game, when Jo-Wilfried saved matters with two spectacular volleys under duress.

But after the first set, it became difficult for Tsonga to win points other than by his potent first serve. (For the match, he led in aces, 25 to 4.) Especially the backhand failed him most often, but confidence also seemed lacking in his favored crushing forehand, while his net-attacking almost disappeared. Gradually Nalbandian found his rhythm in his brand of tennis--maneuvering his opponent, coming to net occasionally, giving away few mistakes. (His winning net forays almost equalled Tsonga's total of aces.) The set ended when Tsonga lost serve at love in the tenth game. It was one set all, and it appeared that, to win, Tsonga must find the big game that had carried him all week but that was so far absent this date.

It didn't happen that way. Nalbandian gave away a serving game early in the set. But even then it remained difficult sailing for Jo-Wilfried, his bold striking and his net game still mostly absent. But favored by the aces, a supporting gallery, and--at the very finish--a reappearance of the deceptive backhand and power forehand, Tsonga managed to hold serve to the end.

Nalbandian deserved credit for defanging Jo-Wilfried's weaponry. But his consistency abandoned him in the critical serving games lost in the first and third sets, and his many wasted chances at breaking serve proved ultimately costly.

SHANGHAI OUTLOOK

Together, Madrid and Paris scarcely produced conclusive evidence for predicting Shanghai, as eight different players provided the final four of both events. Physical problems in Paris among Nadal, Federer, and del Potro added to the subsequent uncertainties.

Here are my projected odds for capturing Shanghai 08:

Murray, odds 3-1, Madrid result persuasive.
Federer, 4-1, longer-than-expected odds follow withdrawal at Paris.
Nadal, 6-1, same.
Tsonga, 8-1, inconsistent in producing his top (i.e., invincible) tennis.
Djokovic, 9-1, failed to reach quarters at either Madrid or Paris.
Roddick, 11-1, lost closely to Tsonga in Paris.
Davydenko, 14-1, lost closely to Nalbandian in Paris.
del Potro, 30-1, not successful at either Madrid or Paris. Foot/toe trouble.
Simon (first alternate), 100-1, the rules allow a replacement after the first round-robin match almost no chance of winning the event.

Warmest wishes for watching Doha and Shanghai in November, with the delicious Davis Cup final between Spain and Argentina to follow. Let us hope that injuries play minimal roles.

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

FOOTNOTE:THE RANKING SYSTEMS

The notion of a point system that would link results at the world's top tournaments into an overall ranking scheme was long a dream in tennis history. As a pro player and promoter in the 1930's, Tilden regularly spoke of such a scheme to tie together the fledgling pro tournaments. During the fifties and especially the sixties, the pros--still excluded from the Slams and other amateur events--used various point systems as means for enhancing competition and interest. The present ATP ranking system, which is based on results from both ATP tour play and also the Slams, has unbroken lineage from 1973.

The ATP and WTA point tallies have achieved nearly universal acceptance, removing subjectivity from choosing the annual world champions, male and female. (Separately, ITF also chooses its male and female champions, whose identities usually are the same as the ATP and WTA winners. ITF does not rank players after #1, however, so it remains hard to pin down where ITF criteria might differ from the ATP and WTA schemes.)

Except for fanatics, members of the public are often puzzled by the concurrent existence of both year-to-date and running-12-month rankings. Further, the differences in how ATP and WTA do their counting are mysterious, and it is remotely possible that two different players could win the year's race and the 12-month tally, respectively.

There is, in my opinion, a much greater weakness in the point allocations themselves--i.e., in the underweighting of the value of winning of a tournament championship. A Slam runner-up, for example, receives 70% the number of points awarded the winner. Thus finishing second in two Slams considerably outweighs winning one.

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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 2 Tickets Miami Men's & Women's Singles Qualifying & Women's Singles 1st Round Key Biscayne FL Crandon Park Center
Sony Open Tennis Session 3 Tickets Miami Men's & Women's Singles 1st Round Key Biscayne FL Crandon Park Center
Sony Open Tennis Session 4 Tickets Miami Men's & Women's Singles 1st Round Key Biscayne FL Crandon Park Center

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US Open Tennis Tickets Session 7 Second Round New York City NYC NY Flushing Meadows Corona
US Open Tennis Tickets Session 6 Men's First Round Women's Second Round New York City NYC NY Flushing Meadows Corona
US Open Tennis Tickets Session 5 Men's First Round Women's Second Round New York City NYC NY Flushing Meadows Corona
US Open Tennis Tickets Session 4 Opening Round New York City NYC NY Flushing Meadows Corona
US Open Tennis Tickets Session 3 Opening Round New York City NYC NY Flushing Meadows Corona

 
 
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