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By Raymond Lee | Monday, February 6, 2023


Novak Djokovic has the strongest claim to GOAT though there are several worthy challengers.

Photo credit: Andy Cheung/Getty

In an annual rite of passage, Novak Djokovic has won his record-extending 10th Australian Open title.

Ho Hum! Doesn’t Djokovic win the Australian Open every year he plays?

More: Serena on Tennis Future and Will Smith Slapping Chris Rock

Obviously, this is not true, but it seems that way every year that Djokovic competes in the Australian Open which unfortunately he could not do last year because he was booted from the country over his unvaccinated status.

So, Djokovic scored his 28th straight Australian Open win to collect his 22nd Grand Slam title, match rival Rafael Nadal’s men’s record, regain the world No. 1 ranking and everything seems normal again.

There is a bit of humor in the previous sentences and paragraphs, but the fact remains that Djokovic has had incredible obstacles put against him in the last few years, yet despite that he continues to win majors and he still returns to No. 1 for the 375th week this week! The quality of his play seems to make him a juggernaut that is impossible to stop.

What makes it even more outstanding is that Djokovic won the 2023 Australian so decisively despite having a hamstring tear of about 3 centimeters or about 1 inch. It was quite reminiscent of the 1976 Wimbledon when Bjorn Borg, Djokovic’s Laver Cup captain, won Wimbledon with a stomach muscle pull without losing a set.

Would Novak Djokovic have won the Australian last year if he was able to play it?

The best guess is yes, and it changes history in tennis. Djokovic would have been at 23 majors now and Nadal would be at 21 instead of them both being tied at 22 majors apiece. Still the reality is that Djokovic could not play the 2022 Australian.

What is very clear is that it is probable that Djokovic is or will be the most accomplished player of the Open Era!

Roger Federer, as I discussed in my last article, is still ahead in my total lifetime accumulated adjusted ATP points statistic. Since ATP points is the way we look at total accomplishments you can still argue Federer is ahead of Novak Djokovic in total lifetime accomplishments if you graded him by Total Adjusted Lifetime ATP Points. Federer, according to my Total Lifetime Adjusted ATP points is at 167,449 while Djokovic just went over the 160,000 mark with his Australian Open win with 160,545 Lifetime Adjusted ATP points.

The reason why I used the term Adjusted Lifetime ATP Points is because I included the 2022 Wimbledon win that Djokovic had as 2000 points and I took into account the ATP Point Freeze due to COVID.

Djokovic is now only 6,904 Adjusted Lifetime ATP Points behind Federer and could possibly past him this year. There is no doubt that if he could have played more tournaments last year that he would be far closer to Federer’s Lifetime Adjusted Point Total or perhaps even would be number one at this point. The reality is that Djokovic is a bit behind Federer as of now. That’s the breaks.

Let’s look at Djokovic’s career record in the Open Era. As I wrote earlier Djokovic now has 160,545 Lifetime Adjusted ATP Points which is second all-time to only the Great Roger Federer. But if we look at Average Adjusted ATP Points per Tournament Djokovic is now up to 569.31 which is clearly the highest of the Average Adjust ATP Points per Tournament. Nadal is second at 493.50 and Federer is third at 456.26. Djokovic’s average is just much higher than anyone else including all-time greats Nadal and Federer.

One of the most important stats in tennis is how many times has a player been No. 1 at the end of the year. Novak Djokovic has been year-end No. 1, an ATP record seven times, ahead of his idol, Pete Sampras, who held the year-end No. 1 ranking six times.

But let’s give Pete Sampras great credit. He was No. 1 for six consecutive years and retired very young at age 32. Sampras could have had a second wind and won more majors and could have been No. 1 more times. Federer and Nadal are tied holding the year-end No. 1 ranking five times apiece.

Djokovic now has an excellent chance to surpass Margaret Court’s majors record of 24 unless Nadal beats him to it.

Speaking of Margaret Court, I’ve seen a lot of articles disparaging the record of Margaret Court for various reasons. One is for example that Margaret Court didn’t accumulate her entire record in the Open Era. This isn’t important at all for the women champions since the women could always play ALL the other women. Margaret Court always played all the strongest players in the world. She played the toughest competition possible.

There was no professional player and amateur divide like the male tennis players had. Court won three out of four majors prior to the Open Era twice, two out of four majors twice and one major in a year three times for a total of 13 Grand Slams prior to the Open Era.

Really, the Open Era isn’t as significant for the women players as far as competition was concerned because the tour they had was open to all women players. Later the Original 9— Billie Jean King, Nancy Richey, Julie Heldman, Valerie Ziegenfuss, Judy Dalton, Kristy Pigeon, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kerry Melville Reid and Rosie Casals&,mdash;started the women’s Tour. In the Open Era alone, Court merely won the calendar year Grand Slam in 1970 and three out of four majors in 1969 and 1973. She won 11 majors in just a few years in the Open Era. That shows great dominance.

So is Novak Djokovic the GOAT or at least in the lead for the GOAT?

Certainly if you use my Adjusted Points Per Tournament he clearly is for the Open Era. It’s the closest thing I can use for evaluating Highest Average Level of Play for the Open Era. Unfortunately you don’t have a point system for tennis players throughout tennis history.

My definition of the GOAT is the player who has the highest average level of play! You can have a great record, but we also have to look at the competition to get a true idea of what level that person is playing at. Some amateur players during the times of the Professional and Amateur divide had incredible records in the amateurs but they were not playing all the top players like Pancho Gonzalez or Jack Kramer.

So, what is the period of time we are looking at when we evaluate the player with the highest average playing level? Some typical arguments are often just for one match! In these arguments for one match historically players like Ellsworth Vines, Lew Hoad, Rod Laver, Pancho Gonzalez, Bill Tilden and even Richard Norris Williams often come to mind. Some may look at one year, five years, ten years or more.

Now when I talk about level of play, I am taking into account the differences in the racquets of today and the tiny wood racquets of years ago. An average ATP player nowadays with the current racquets would stand a good chance to defeat let’s say Arthur Ashe with a wood racquet. But give that average ATP player a wood racquet, assuming the average ATP player has time to practice with it or give Ashe a current racquet with time to practice with it and Ashe would probably win easily assuming they both have the same type of equipment.

I think in this case most people are discussing total career average playing level when they discuss who is the GOAT in tennis.

We must look at tennis history within the context of the times. Open Tennis only started in 1968. Relatively speaking for tennis history it wasn’t that long ago!

There was no ATP Point System or WTA Point System throughout tennis history. The system for deciding the best player or/and players was done differently. The top players were not the rich zillionaires that they are now with teams to train them and modern training methods. The Major Tournaments aka the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open while important, were at times not as important as Tournaments with huge payouts. For example, the WTC Finals would clearly more important than some majors due to newfound prestige and the huge monetary payout.

There was a very high-level tournament with big money in the early 1970s called the Tennis Champions Classic. The players who participated in this tournament were virtually all the top players in the world. The tournament had Rod Laver, John Newcombe, Tony Roche, Ken Rosewall, Arthur Ashe, Roy Emerson, Tom Okker, Dennis Ralston and Roger Taylor. It was set up as a round robin and the players with the best records in the round robin format would advance to the semi-finals. Considering the strength of the field it was considered impossible for any player to go through the tournament unbeaten. The tournament was played indoors on carpet, a surface they do not use in top ATP tournaments anymore. There were some breaks in the tournament to accommodate the player’s schedule. The semi-finals and finals however were played normally. Laver in stunning fashion won 13 straight matches to win the tournament. There was a match in that tournament in which Tom Okker said he played as well as he ever played. But to quote Okker “But I was never in the match. I couldn’t believe some of those shots. He couldn’t believe them himself!” Laver defeated Okker by 6-1 6-4 6-3. Okker was an unbelievable gifted player who won many tournaments. Okker defeated all the top players and yet he was crushed while still apparently playing his best tennis ever against Laver! This shows the incredible levels Laver could reach when he was playing well.

The problem is that how do you rate a tournament like that historically?

The field that Laver went through was perhaps the toughest field ever! It’s definitely stronger on average level than any major. Laver won 13 matches without a loss to win the tournament instead of only winning seven matches for a normal major. I used the World Tour Finals Point Method and estimated that winning this tournament for Laver was the equivalent of 3900 ATP Points! By the way Laver won about $160,000 in that tournament leaving the other players in the dust. That’s pretty good for 1971!

There were a number of tournaments that arguably were as strong or at least as prestigious as majors or perhaps the equivalent of Masters 1000 tournaments. One example of this is the 1969 Howard Hughes Open. Pancho Gonzalez, who was in his early forties at the time won the first Howard Hughes Open in Las Vegas by after defeating Peter Curtis in the first round, then defeated Hall of Famers John Newcombe, Ken Rosewall, Stan Smith and Arthur Ashe in the final. The last two rounds were best of five. Gonzalez repeated this feat the next year by defeating arguably the best player in the world, Rod Laver in the final.

Now Gonzalez was of course a great player in his prime, but he was only a very good to excellent player in his forties in the late 1960s and early 1970s and most likely would not be able to win a major, although he was a danger to defeat anyone in any one match.

Let’s give further clarity what is the definition of a GOAT.

It’s the player who has the highest average level of play.

So how do we do this?

What are the number of years we are looking at?

There is no machine to measure the level of play of a tennis player as there is in chess! And of course one tennis player may defeat another tennis player regularly more than they should due to the contrast in styles.

I will tell you this, the player who is the GOAT and has the highest level of play is not necessarily the player accumulating the most majors like many assume it is. The way we should do it is to examine the entire career and the circumstances in which they played and how they played.

For example, Serena Williams has won 23 majors and obviously she is one of the all-time greats. She is definitely one of the players you can put on the list for potential GOAT.

Serena Williams won 23 majors in 81 attempts. Even if we eliminate the last 13 majors, she played in which she could not win a major it’s 23 majors in 68 attempts. Serena won 73 tournaments out of 240 played in her career. Serena had a 84.82 career match winning percentage.

The key thing here is Serena’s level of play. To me her astounding performance in winning her Serena Slam in which she held all four majors at the same time in the years 2002-2003 is the equivalent of a Calendar Year Grand Slam! Her level of play was superb and her competition had greats like her own sister Venus, Kim Clijsters, Jennifer Capriati, Justine Henin, Martina Hingis, Maria Sharapova, Lindsay Davenport among many others. This is among the toughest competition in tennis history if not the toughest.

Steffi Graf, for example won 22 majors, but in 54 attempts. Steffi Graf won 107 tournaments in 214 or 222 attempts if memory serves. Her match winning percentage 89.30. Graf also won the Golden Slam in 1988 in sweeping all four majors plus the Olympic Gold medal in singles. Graf also had great competition is players like Navratilova, Evert, Seles, Sanchez Vicario, Sabatini, Davenport, Hingis, Serena Williams, Venus Williams and others.

Now Graf won one less major than Serena but she can reasonably be compared to her.

One problem is that often players as they get older have a decline period which lowers some of their percentage categories. You have to take that into account. Serena’s peak period was fantastic as was Graf’s.

You could use the same words in discussing Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Helen Wills, Suzanne Lenglen, Maureen Connolly, Alice Marble and also Margaret Court. All of these women have great records.

Helen Wills for example won 19 majors in 24 attempts even though travel was much more difficult in her day.

Maureen Connolly won nine straight majors that she entered!

For example on the men’s side just in the Open Era, Laver was the GOAT, Connors was the GOAT, then Borg was definitely the GOAT, then John McEnroe, Sampras, Federer, Nadal and now Djokovic. It always tends to be the current player. Lots of GOATs over a relatively short period. We should get a shepherd.

The concept of looking at the resume of a player and looking ONLY at the majors he or she won is simply a way to quickly look at the level of play of the player. So the logic is, if a player wins a lot of majors, he or she has to be pretty good. Makes sense to a degree. However, let’s not forget that majors aren’t the majority of the tournaments on the tour. There are other tournaments that are very high level also. It’s a short cut or easy cheat sheet to analyzing level of play but as we all know, sometimes short cuts are not often the best way to do things.

Ashley Cooper and Mal Anderson had super records in the amateurs winning a good percentage of tournaments and classic majors like Wimbledon. They both turned pro and went on tour against the Great Pancho Gonzalez. Cooper and Anderson promptly won 0 matches out of 34 played! Pancho Gonzalez played at a far higher average level than anyone Cooper and Anderson ever faced. Cooper and Anderson had higher percentage records and won classic majors because they played weaker competition in the amateurs than the great players Pancho Gonzalez faced.

Gonzalez was regularly playing all the top players like Sedgman, Rosewall, Hoad, Trabert, Segura. And yes, Gonzalez did lose to some of them at times because they were great players so the Gonzalez winning percentages were not as high as Cooper and Anderson’s winning percentages in the amateurs.

So, who has the best total career for highest average level of play for the men? I will attempt to look at the candidates and perhaps eliminate some players who often have been called the GOAT in tennis.

In the Open Era they use ATP points to see who the best player for the year is. In the Open Era currently Roger Federer has the highest adjusted TOTAL accumulated ATP points so you can make that argument for the Great Federer. Essentially if I can use a golfing term, Federer is the clubhouse leader and finished his final round! Djokovic and Nadal are still on the course but they have a few stroke lead in the final round with just a few holes to play.

Nadal of course is up there in the running with his currently record 22 majors and his 493.50 average adjusted points per tournament.

And then you have Novak Djokovic. He also have 22 majors which is the highest ever. His average adjusted points per tournament is 569.31 which is easily above that of Nadal who is second. He has 7 Year End Number Ones, a few times number 2, and last year he was number 5 but probably would have been number 1 if he was able to play a full schedule. It only took Djokovic two tournaments to overtake the injured Alcaraz to regain number 1 again! As of now I believe Djokovic has the finest record of the Big Four and clearly for average level of play. All the evidence points to it.

The other contenders in the Open Era for highest level of play for a few years is Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver. Borg arguably for his time at his peak perhaps played as well as any player that ever lived, especially from 1977 to 1979. He has a few injuries in the next two years but was still great. Unfortunately for all of us and for tennis history he essentially retired at the age of 25.

You can say the same about Level of Play with the Rocket aka Rod Laver. Rod Laver of course is a legend. Everyone knows of Laver and his two Grand Slams. Laver was the dominant player in the first few years of the Open Era in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But since the majority of Laver’s career was prior to the Open Era we cannot consider him for best player of the Open Era. We can however discuss his overall career Open and prior to the Open Era in relation to some of the great players.

I do believe that as of now Novak Djokovic is the GOAT of the Open Era so far but is he the overall GOAT in tennis history? I do think it’s possible he could be on an objective and even subjective basis.

Who can still have arguments for the all-time Tennis GOAT against the superb record of Novak Djokovic? The tennis system in the professional ranks prior to the Open Era was far different than today.

You see when a player turned pro he or she wasn’t not allowed to play in the classic majors, which were the Australian, French, Wimbledon and the US Nationals. It wasn’t until 1968 tennis was opened up for the top pros to play. Ken Rosewall won the first Open Major in 1968 defeating Rod Laver in the final. After that Laver dominated and won 5 of the first 7 Open Majors through the end of 1969.

Often the top players like Pancho Gonzalez, Jack Kramer, Ellsworth Vines, Don Budge played on long tours against each other. To use a hypothetical example let’s say Federer played a tour against Nadal on all types of surfaces. Neither player, because of the greatness of both would have one sided winning percentages. One may win 53 and the other may win 47 out of 100. It may be even closer than that! Well, that’s often how the Old Pro Tour worked. They did have tournaments, but the tour was not the big money tour of today. Some of these tours were for the championship of the Pro Ranks. The players, often two but sometimes more would play long tours, sometimes over 100 matches over a period of months.

Gonzalez won about 6 or 7 of these Pro Tours for the World Championships! He was the dominant player in tennis for about 10 years and was still defeating players like Laver, Rosewall, Connors, Newcombe, Smith and Ashe in the early 1970s.

I believe his finest tour for the World Professional Championship was In 1960 where he defeated when Gonzalez won 49-8 against Ken Rosewall, Pancho Segura and Alex Olmedo. Rosewall was a very distant second at 32-25. Gonzalez defeated Rosewall in their individual matches by 20 to 4. Rosewall was imo at his absolute best at that time being a pro for a number of years and was probably at his physical peak at age 25 most of 1960. While I respect the greatness of Rosewall he cannot be ranked ahead of Gonzalez as so many articles have done. Rosewall didn’t become number 1 until Gonzalez retired the first time. He was never number 1 while Gonzalez was playing before he retired.

Rosewall by the way may hold the record for most matches played with around 2235. A super player and great to watch.

Gonzalez won overall about 120 or so tournaments total in his career. Pancho Gonzalez was a strong player in any tournament for over 20 years.

So when you initially examine the record of Pancho Gonzalez by just the superficial method of just checking majors won you will find Gonzalez won only two majors in the US Nationals, the name of the US Open prior to Open tennis. And these majors were only amateur majors! However, if you check his total record for the context of the times you will find that his record compares perhaps favorably to any player in tennis history!

If Gonzalez was playing under today’s conditions, it’s very probable he would have won over 20 majors given his great serve and athleticism, all-court acumen and his fantastic longevity.

Gonzalez was a great athlete. He was very smooth and at 6’3.5 inches tall he was an excellent height even today. Gonzalez’s serve is one of the greatest serves in history, often called the best ever. Vic Braden in one of his books Tennis 2000 wrote Even in the 1960s, when he was still winning matches at Wimbledon at the age of forty-one, Gonzalez was still the greatest server in the game because he generated his power from rhythm and the proper use of each body link.

Later in the book Braden wrote I have no doubt Gonzalez would have served in the 140-mph zone with today’s rackets. Braden wrote this in the year 2000 so the racquets are even better today.

Braden used to use computer analysis on tennis strokes, so his opinion is something to be taken very seriously.

Despite the fact Gonzalez had huge power he was actually a great touch player so he had everything. My general feeling is if you gave a young Gonzalez today’s more powerful racquets and some time to adjust to them he would be up there battling for No. 1.

Laver of course is still in the running for GOAT. Laver “only” won 11 classic majors but he won two Grand Slams. One as an amateur in 1962 and one at a Professional in the Open Era in 1969! In the meantime he spent 5 years in the wilderness of the Old Pro Tour where he was playing tremendous players like Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad, Tony Trabert, Frank Segura, Pancho Segura, Alex Olmedo, Gimeno, Pancho Gonzalez among others.

We also have to realize that majors weren’t necessarily the end all. Many players preferred to go for the most financially lucrative tournaments.

Laver was generally the best player in the Professionals during most of that time. He and Rosewall won most of the big tournaments when Laver was on the Old Pro Tour from 1963 to 1967. In there was Open Tennis Laver most likely would have added greatly to his total of majors won if there was Open Tennis in those days.

Pancho Gonzalez retired in 1961 as the number one player. Gonzalez didn’t play in 1962 and only played one match in 1963 before making a comeback in 1964 at age 36.

Laver in those years from 1963 to 1967 won an incredible number of tournaments including most of the big tournaments on the Old Pro Tour. In his career Laver won over 200 tournaments.

Laver was probably the strongest player in the with massive wrists so he could flick shots like most people playing Ping Pong! His wrists were measured to be larger than the heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson and his forearm the equal of another heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano. With that strength he could hit offensive topspin shots from defensive positions with the old heavy tiny wood racquet.

So when you look at Laver’s career and realize he won 200 tournaments, easily the most in tennis history and that he won two calendar year Grand Slams including the first Open Grand Slam you realize how unbelievable a player Laver was. Laver was robbed of his peak years in which he could have easily won many more majors and top tournaments. Considering how dominant he was at his peak Laver could have easily won another Grand Slam during that period.

The last person we can still put in the running for the imaginary GOAT title is Bill Tilden. Tilden once held the record for most majors won with 10. It doesn’t seem impressive now although it is an excellent total but you have to look at that total in the context of the times again. During Tilden’s time in the 1920s and afterwards the transportation methods were poor. We did not have airplanes as fast as today. Players would often take ships to another country to play in majors. This could take many weeks, perhaps months. The players could get out of shape and for all their trouble they could lose in the first round.

Tilden did play in 8 majors during his peak period from 1920 to 1925 and won all 8. These are the classic majors. The French was only available to be played by Frenchmen and outsiders could not play the French until 1925. Tilden however did win the World Hard Court Championships in France which was the clay court major at the time so I would write that in reality Tilden won 9 majors out of 9 played during his peak years.

According to Bud Collins’ Tennis Encyclopedia Tilden won from 1912 to 1930 138 of 192 tournaments, lost 28 finals and had a 907–62 match record. This is a 93.60 winning percentage over 19 years.

Tilden won about 160 or so tournaments in his career.

So if we look at level of play Tilden is still in consideration for GOAT. Actually Tilden would be very at home with play today. He was a super groundstroker with a great return. He had perhaps the best serve in the game and excellent mobility. The man was 6’2” tall. His only minor weakness was his overhead which he placed well instead of pulverizing it like a Gonzalez or Kramer.

The last player we could consider is Jack Kramer. Again on a superficial look at his record it doesn’t look as good as many. However it is truly staggering how many players who played Kramer and many other greats rate Kramer as the best ever.

He was the only player to ever play in the Professional ranks never to lose a tour. He was arguably the number one pro officially from 1946 to the early 1950s when Gonzalez took over. I saw one tour with which he played Bobby Riggs, Pancho Segura, Pail and Romanoni in which Kramer swept all his matches. Riggs, Segura and Pails were superb players with Riggs and Segura all-time greats at their peak. You could say at that point Kramer was probably the best player in the world on all surfaces and that does not happen all the time.

The problem with Kramer’s career was that it was shortened by early onset arthritis. He couldn’t play as much due to World War II.

However, for High Level of Play Kramer has to be put in there at least for a few years.

Okay so who is in the running for GOAT? Obviously Djokovic is one but also for now his rival Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Federer’s career has ended after over 20 years of top play so as I wrote before, Federer is the clubhouse leader with Djokovic and Nadal still on the course with a lead.

Right now for the Open Era alone you have to think Djokovic and Nadal are the top two candidates for Highest Level of Play due to their clearly higher Adjusted Points Per Tournament rate. Djokovic is at 569.31, Nadal is at 493.50 and Federer trails both at 456.26.

Djokovic is in the lead now but Nadal is still active so as the famous philosopher Yogi Berra once said “It ain’t over til it’s over.” However Nadal does trail Djokovic by a good margin in total adjusted points and in average adjusted points per tournament.

The thing is that the Open Era is only a portion of Tennis History and much of Tennis’ rich history is prior to the Open Era.

So we have the players I mentioned in Borg, Laver, Gonzalez, Kramer and Tilden. Borg and Kramer were insanely great but due to various factors did not have as much time at the top so I would eliminate them overall although you can argue that for a few years they were greater than any player.

That leaves Rod Laver, Pancho Gonzalez and Bill Tilden.

All of these players still have legitimate claims to being the Tennis GOAT and all of them have phenomenal records for at least 15 to 20 years. These players were astonishingly gifted.

A matchup between Djokovic and any of these three would be something to watch.

Tilden for example was a great server with great groundstrokes. But he also was a master of spins and angle plus a good volley.

Laver against Djokovic would be interesting also but I think Djokovic’s return would give Laver problems on the serve and volley.

To me the most intriguing match would be with a 25-year-old Pancho Gonzalez against a 25- year-old Novak Djokovic. You have possibly the greatest server in Pancho Gonzalez blasting serves in the 130 to 140 mph range with the great volley against possibly the greatest returner in Novak Djokovic. You have to extremely mobile players with great power off the ground.

Gonzalez was a bit taller at 6’3.5” tall to Djokovic’s 6’2” taller.

Gonzalez could hit his forehand as hard as anyone. He was once timed hitting his tiny heavy wood racquet at 112.88 miles per hour with the primitive devices for checking speed in the 1950s. Jack Kramer incidentally was timed at 107.8 mph in the same event.

Who knows how hard Gonzalez would be able to hit the forehand now with today’s racquets? Off the ground however Djokovic would have the edge as he would against just about any player in history but Gonzalez didn’t mind groundstroke rallies either.

So for now it’s clear to me that while Novak Djokovic (so far) is the top player of the Open Era, Tilden, Gonzalez and Laver still have good cases in their favor for GOAT.

Raymond Lee is a Tennis Now contributing writer and tennis historian who lives in New York. He has written about tennis for decades serving as a contributing writer for Tennis Week Magazine and Check out Raymond Lee's Article: Holy Grail: Why Winning the Calendar Grand Slam is Toughest Task in Sport and Reviewing an Extraordinary and Emotional 2022 Season.


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