Coach Samson Dubina 2016 US National Team Coach 2015 - 2018 USATT Coach of the Year
 

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Modern Table Tennis Styles

Written By ITTF Coach Richard McAfee

Modern Table Tennis Styles
By Richard McAfee
USATT Certified National Coach
 
 
            Constant changes in equipment, gluing methods, and training methods have had a large effect on the evolution of styles within our sport.  The decade of the nineties has seen the decline of two styles, the passive chopper and the passive half-distance topspin player.  In their place, a stronger more balanced attacking style has emerged, the All-round Attacker.  This can be seen in both shake-hands and penholder versions, with the penholder version incorporating the new reverse penholder backhand loop technique.  Recently, the introduction to the 40 mm ball and the 11-point games has changed both stroke techniques and tactics; and even now playing styles are evolving quickly to take full advantage of the new ball’s playing characteristics. Table Tennis is an ever-evolving sport that requires both coaches and players to constantly update their knowledge.
 
          The purpose of this article is to examine the eight styles currently in use at the World Class Level.  These styles include:
 
1.   The Attacker – Pips-Out Penholder – Traditional Style
2.   The Attacker – Shake-hands Hitter
3.   The Attacker - Inverted Power Looper
4.   The Attacker – All- Round
5.   The Counter Driver
6.   The Mid-Distance Aggressive Looper
7.   The Close to the Table Defender
8.   The Attacking Chopper
 
This article will provide you with the strengths and weaknesses of each style.  In reading the descriptions you will find that your personal style will have attributes from more than one.  However, you should be able to recognize your dominant style (“A” style) and your secondary style (“B” style).  This article will also give you some suggestions on tactics to use against the other styles of play.  Hopefully the following style descriptions will serve as a guide in analyzing your own.
 
 
 
 
 
1. Attacker Pips-Out Penholder, Traditional Style
Description:
Pips-Out Penholder Attackers generally stand within three feet of the table. The contact point on all strokes is as early as possible top of the bounce or rising. This is a forehand-dominated style with the player exhibiting a strong, quick pivot move to use the forehand from the backhand side. The Pips-Out Penholder wants to end points quickly and keeps great time pressure on his/her opponents, forcing many errors. This style has benefited from the new 40 mm ball and the subsequent loss of about 10 % spin on their opponents loops.
Strengths:

  • Quick pivot to use forehand from backhand corner.
  • Strong forehand kills.
  • Good forehand topspin against long under-spin balls.
  • Driving blocks from backhand side.
  • Good short game.
  • Excellent serve and return game.
  • Very quick gives opponent very little time to react.
  • Smooth transition from forehand to backhand no switch point weakness

Weaknesses:

  • Return of long serves with the backhand.
  • Backhand block against higher bouncing loops.
  • When forced wide to the forehand, this style has difficulty recovering and protecting the backhand side.
  • Backhand open against long under-spin.
  •  

Tactics Against Other Styles
Against the Attacker Shake-hands Hitter: While this style is similar to yours, your grip gives you an advantage in the short game, the forehand-backhand transition game, and the forehand lift against under-spin. Keep the majority of your serves short to the middle of the table. Be aggressive in stepping around your backhand to use your forehand. Do your best to prevent backhand-to-backhand exchanges and attack your opponents middle often.
 
Against the Attacker Inverted Power Looper: Use mostly short mixed serves, with an occasional fast deep serve to the opponent’s forehand side. Mix the speed and depth of your backhand blocks to move your opponent in and out. Attack down the line or at the opponents switch point (if shake-hands grip) whenever possible. Force play at a faster pace than your opponent is comfortable at.
Against the Attacker All-Round: Keep most of your serves short or at mid-depth. Follow your serve with a forehand attack to keep the opponent on the defensive. Attack often to your opponent’s middle. When returning serve, use the flip often. The key to defeating this player is to take away his confidence by forcing him to play more defensively. Keeping your opponent under constant time pressure is important.
Against the Counter Driver: Use short serves anywhere on the table with a deep fast under-spin serve to the backhand mixed in. Shot selection is the key to defeating the counter driver. Do not get lured into a backhand-to-backhand game. Use your backhand block down the line to force more forehand-to-forehand play. Do not to let your opponent dictate the pace of play.
Against the Mid-Distance Aggressive Looper: Watch out for this opponent’s strong opening spin. Attack first and hit through his/her first loop whenever possible. Keep your serves short and attack the middle. When the opponent backs away from the table, mostly attack the backhand side.
Against the Attacking Chopper: Keep your serves mostly short with an occasional long serve to the opponent’s backhand side. Whenever possible, make your first attack to the choppers middle and then attack his/her backhand side. The goal here is to keep the chopper on the defensive. Expect the chopper to third ball attack. Respond to the attack by redirecting your opponent’s attack away from the side in came from.
Against the Close to the Table Defender: Serve this style mid-distance to long serves to the middle or backhand and attack their returns. Avoid long points by attacking your opponents wide forehand early in the point. No spin serves and pushes are often effective in forcing errors or high returns.
 
 
 
 
 
2. Attacker — Shake-hands Hitter
Description:
Like their Penholder counterparts, this style generally stands within three feet of the table. This style is forehand dominated and all ball contact is on the rise or at the top of the bounce. Unlike the Pen-hold Pips-Out Attacker, this style will often open a point with a backhand drive. This style often features a strong backhand counter-drive, hitting well through opponent’s topspin shots. While still trying to finish each point quickly, the Shake-hands Pips-Out Attacker is often content to maneuver the opponent out of position before pivoting to end the point with a forehand kill.
There are more penholder pips-out hitters than shake-hands pips-out hitters due to the ease of producing spin with the penholder grip. The shake hand pips-out hitter can produce great speed but has trouble generating much spin. Even so, the style can be very successful. A great example of this style would be Johnny Hwang from Canada.
Strengths:

  • Quick pivot to use the forehand from backhand corner
  • Strong forehand kills.
  • Strong counter-driving techniques from the backhand side
  • Strong backhand initial opening attack
  • Excellent serve and return game.
  • Forceful pace - gives opponent very little time to react

Weaknesses:

  • Short game (not as strong as the pen hold hitter)
  • Forehand serve return. (They are often forced to go for high risk shots due to a lack of a spin loop)
  • Forehand lift against long under-spin shots
  • Balls directed to the player's middle.

Tactics Against Other Styles
Against the Pips-Out Penholder Attacker: Keep your serves short to the opponent’s backhand side. In addition, serve deep to the backhand, cutting the sideline of the table and attack the return. Also, occasionally serve deep to the forehand. Your grip should give you an advantage in backhand-to-backhand play. Pin your opponent in his/her backhand corner as much as possible. When returning serves long, play to the deep corners.
 
Against the Inverted PowerLooper Attacker: Use mostly short mixed serves, with an occasional fast deep serve to the opponent’s forehand side. Do not allow the Inverted Looper to turn you into a blocker, hit through the topspin as much as possible. Also, attack down the line whenever possible to keep time pressure on this opponent by making him/her play at a faster pace than they are comfortable. Strong opening attacks and fast returns to the opponent’s switch point, if shake-hands, will force him to back off the table.
Against the All-Round Attacker: Keep most of your serves short or at mid-depth. Follow your serve with a forehand attack to keep the opponent on the defensive. Attack often to your opponent’s middle. When returning serve, use the flip often. The key to defeating this player is to take away his confidence by forcing him to play more defensively.
Against the Counter Driver: Use short serves anywhere on the table with a deep fast under-spin serve to the backhand mixed in. Shot selection is the key to defeating the counter driver. Do not over play your backhand. Use your backhand counter down the line to force more forehand-to-forehand play.
Against the Mid-Distance Aggressive Looper: Watch out for this opponent’s strong opening spin. Attack first and hit through his/her first loop whenever possible. Keep your serves short and attack the middle. When the opponent backs away from the table, mostly attack the backhand side.
Against the Attacking Chopper: Keep your serves mostly short with an occasional long serve to the opponent’s backhand side. Whenever possible make your first attack to the chopper’s middle and then attack his/her backhand side. The goal here is to keep the chopper on the defensive. Expect the chopper to third ball attack and when he does, redirect his attack away from the side it came from.
Against the Close to the Table Defender: Serve this style mid-distance to long serves to the middle or backhand side and attack their returns. Avoid long points by attacking your opponent’s wide forehand early in the point. No spin serves and pushes are often effective in forcing errors or high returns.
 
 
 
3. Attacker—Inverted Power Looper
Description:
Inverted Loopers generally stand within three feet of the table. The contact point on all strokes is as early as possible, top of the bounce, or rising. This is a forehand-dominated style with the player exhibiting a strong quick pivot move to use the forehand from the backhand side. This style will try to end points as quickly as possible. Most points are finished with a strong loop-kill. This player often has both an outstanding slow loop and a fast loop-kill from the forehand side. Players of this style can open with a backhand loop but normally do not re-loop with the backhand. They choose to counter drive the backhand instead. This style will on occasion move back into mid-distance (5-7ft from table) and counter loop with the forehand.
Players of this style have generally done well with the move to the 40 mm ball. Their main adjustment has been to develop a more forward loop stroke taking the ball a little farther in front of their bodies. This puts more emphasis on the forward speed than the spin of their power loops.
Strengths:

  • Quick pivot to use forehand from backhand corner.
  • Strong forehand loops.
  • Both strong slow and fast loops from the forehand.
  • Solid opening backhand loop.
  • Solid backhand counter-drives.
  • Good short game.
  • Excellent serve and return game.

Weaknesses:

  • Balls directed towards the player’s middle.
  • Balls directed wide to the forehand.
  • In and out movement.
  • Backhand re-loop.
  • Slow heavy loops directed towards the backhand.

 
Tactics Against Other Styles
Against the Attacker — Pips-Out Penholder: Serve short anywhere with an occasional deep under-spin serve to the opponent’s backhand side. First attack should be either a heavy spin loop to the penholder’s backhand or a faster loop wide to the forehand side. Avoid backhand-to-backhand exchanges by using your backhand counter down the line when possible. Try to turn the penholder into a blocker by using higher trajectory heavy loops to his/her backhand side.
Against the Attacker —Shake-hands Hitter: Serve short, mostly to the middle of the table and follow with a strong 3rd ball attack to your opponent’s middle or backhand side. Be ready to pivot and use your forehand from your backhand side whenever possible.
Against the Attacker — All-Round: Your advantage lies in having a more powerful forehand attack, use it. Serve short to your opponent’s middle and move to execute a strong 3rd ball forehand attack. Also, you can serve mid-distance serves and forehand attack against a weak lift. The key here is to force your opponent to play defensively.
Against the Counter Driver: Use short serves anywhere on the table with a deep fast under-spin serve to the backhand mixed in. Shot selection is the key to defeating the counter driver. Do not over force your backhand. Use your backhand counter down the line to force more forehand-to-forehand play.
Against the Mid-Distance Aggressive Looper: To defeat this style you must attack first. Keep your serves mostly short and look to attack the opponent’s middle whenever possible. Try to move your opponent in and out if possible and try and play above his/her comfort level (time pressure).
Against the Attacking Chopper: Keep your serves mostly short with an occasional long serve to the opponent’s backhand side. Whenever possible, make your first topspin a quick loop to the chopper’s middle and then attack his/her backhand side. The goal here is to keep the chopper on the defensive. Expect the chopper to third ball attack and try to redirect your opponent’s attack away from the side it came from.
Against the Close to the Table Defender: Serve this style mid-distance to long serves to the middle or backhand side and attack their returns. Avoid long points by attacking your opponent’s wide forehand early in the point. You want to be exchanging forehands to forehands whenever possible. No spin serves and pushes are often effective in forcing errors or high returns
 
 
4. Attacker-All-Round
Description:
This is perhaps the newest style in the evolution of the modern game. This athlete typically exhibits great hands, a wide variety of attacking strokes executed with almost equal strength from both sides, and the ability to adapt his game to attack the opponent's weaknesses.
This athlete is equally comfortable when generating powerful strokes or simply redirecting the opponent's power against them. Players of this style can produce a wide variety of topspin attacking shots from any position or distance from the table.
Strengths:

  • Strong opening shots from either backhand or forehand.
  • The ability to produce a great deal of variations in their attack.
  • The ability to control the ball at high rates of speed.
  • The use of sidespin to control the ball and create greater angles for their opponents to cover.
  • Great confidence player and front-runner.

Weaknesses:

  • Can become confused as to which of the many techniques to use, especially when losing.
  • Can be lured into playing too soft, and not being aggressive enough to finish a point.
  • Often lacks a single hard finishing shot (flat kill) against balls at a medium height.

Tactics Against Other Styles
Against the Attacker — Pips-Out Penholder: Use long chop serves to the backhand mixed with short serves to the middle or backhand. Cut the sideline with the long serve so the opponent cannot run around his/her backhand to attack. Change constantly between backhand looping and counters to upset your opponent's rhythm. Elevate your loops to the penholder's backhand, as the higher loops are more difficult for them to block. Stay aggressive and constantly mix the speed, height, and direction of your topspins.
Against the Attacker —Shake-hands Hitter: Serve mostly short and mid-depth to the middle, and then attack the third ball hard to a corner. Do not get into a backhand-to-backhand counter game; but do mix your backhand returns between loops and counters. Use sidespin on your forehand loops to increase your playing angles. Stay aggressive and change the speed, height, and direction of your topspins.
 
Against the Attacker — Inverted Power Looper: Serve short anywhere, with an occasional long chop serve to the backhand side. The key to defeating this powerful forehand style is to attack first. If you cannot make a strong first attack, then try to make a safe topspin low with heavy spin. Stay as close to the table as possible, pushing your opponent back by redirecting his own force against him/her.
Against the Counter Driver: Use all types of serves and placements of the serves. Heavy backspin serves are particularly effective against the counter driver. Play safe topspins to the middle and attack hard down the lines. Do not be tricked into playing his/her game at the pace they like. Constantly mix the speed, spin, and height of your topspins.
Against the Mid-Distance Aggressive Looper: Use mostly short serves. Stay close to the table and redirect your opponent's power against him/her. Do not be tempted into over-hitting. Use sidespin on your loops to increase the distance your opponent must cover. Once the mid-distance looper retreats from the table attack his middle or wide to the backhand side.
Against the Attacking Chopper: Use both short and long serves to the opponent's backhand, then follow with a series of variable topspins. Mix the height, spin, and speed of these topspins. The object here is to frustrate the chopper and force him/her to try high-risk attacks. Alternate hard shots with well-placed soft shots to make the chopper move forward and backward.
Against the Close to the Table Defender: Use mid-distance and long backspin serves. The key to overcoming this opponent is not to over force the attack. Constantly mix the spin, speed, and height of your topspins. Keeping your softer set-up shots directed to the middle of the table will reduce the angles that the defender can use and make your subsequent attacks easier to execute. When you get a high return, attack hard wide to the forehand side.
 
 
5. The Counter-Driver
Description:
Often referred to as "walls", this style plays close to the table and redirects their opponent's speed and spin against them. Using forehand and backhand counter-drive and blocks, this style seeks to force their opponents into making errors. This style mostly uses topspin simply as a means to get into a counter-driving rally. Often this style of player lacks real finishing power, and rarely uses a fast loop or hard kill shot.
Strengths:

  • Good hand speed and touch on blocks.
  • Strong backhand block and counter-drive.
  • Rarely makes a simple mistake.
  • Ability to open up angles and force their opponents to move a lot.
  • Fast hand speed and quick reactions.
  • Ability to control the speed of play by clever counter and block variations and exact placement.

Weaknesses:

  • Lack of any real power.
  • Balls directed wide to the forehand.
  • Backhand opening against under-spin.
  • Slow heavy medium height loops to middle or backhand.

 
Tactics Against Other Styles
Against the Attacker — Pips-Out Penholder: Keep your serves short, only serving long as a surprise tactic. A fast, well-angled serve to their backhands will often result in soft return. The key to defeating this style is successfully countering their first attack. Try to play as much backhand counter to backhand block as possible. To win the point, first backhand counter down the line, then attack the exposed penholder backhand.
Against the Attacker —Shake-hands Hitter: Same general advice as playing the pips-out attacker. However, you should direct a high percentage of your backhand counters towards your opponent's middle.
Against the Attacker — Inverted Power Looper: Serve short anywhere with an occasional fast dead serve to the player's switch point if he uses the shake-hands grip. Make your first attack safe; slow backhand rolls and heavy slow forehand loops can be very effective. Attempt to extend the points as long as possible. When you do get a chance to attack hard, attack down the lines.
Against the Attacker All-Round: Use short serves anywhere or long serves to the backhand. Do your best to force him/her into a countering exchange. Focus on placement to win the points, not changing speeds. Avoid using too much variation; this player is the master at variation and will beat you at your own game. Extend the points as long as possible.
Against the Mid-Distance Aggressive Looper: Use mostly short serves and attack or counter to the middle. If he/she covers the middle ball with the forehand side, then counter the next ball wide to the forehand. If he/she covers the middle ball with the backhand side, then counter the next ball wide to the backhand. Keep your opponent jammed in the middle and they will not be able to use their strong loops. Also alternate between short and long counters to keep this style from staying in their preferred mid-distance range.
Against the Attacking Chopper: Use short serves to stop the chopper's attack. Then make a safe topspin opening using your forehand. Do not rush your attack but mix your topspins with pushes, counters, and kills. You will need to play long points and try to frustrate the chopper into making attacking errors.
Against the Close to the Table Defender: Use long mixed serves and lure your opponent into over attacking; often this style player has a weak first attack. Direct most balls to the backhand side, using safe counter and topspin strokes. If this player's angles are preventing your attack, play steady to the middle of the table to reduce the possible angles. Finish with a kill shot rather than a fast loop.
 
6. Mid-Distance Aggressive Looper
Description:
This style prefers to stay within six to eight feet from the table. Their longer topspin strokes carry considerable power and spin, from either forehand or backhand. This style will loop from both wings when playing another attacker. Against under-spin, this style will often step around and use the forehand loop from the backhand side.
The recent introduction of the 40 mm ball has had a major impact on this style of play. The resulting loss of spin caused by the larger ball has forced this style of player to become even more fit and powerful to survive. Gone are the days when this style would defeat opponents by building up spin with each loop. Now this style builds up speed with each loop.  In today's game, this style is much more dynamic, with even faster point winning loops.
Strengths:

  • Equal power from both sides.
  • Very strong opening shot against under-spin.
  • Very comfortable in exchanging loop drives with their opponents.
  • Strong lateral movement.

Weaknesses:

  • Often lacks flat kill shot.
  • Weak in and out movement.
  • Short balls to forehand.
  • Counter-drive play while close to the table. .

Suggested Robot Drills
Tactics Against Other Styles
Against the Attacker — Pips-Out Penholder: You should use mostly short serves to the middle of the table with an occasional long chop serve to the backhand side. Try to turn the penholder into a blocker by elevating heavy loops to his/her backhand. In general, use slower heavy topspins to force slower return blocks. When you get a ball to attack, attack hard down the lines.
Against the Attacker — Pips-Out Shake-hands: Same general tactics as the penholder, but direct more loops towards the middle of your opponent.
Against the Attacker — Inverted Power Looper: As both styles can attack hard, you must attack first. Use short serves and return serves with short drops or well-placed flips to control the opening attack. Attack wide to your opponent's forehand, as his/her forehand block is usually weaker than their backhand block.
Against the Attacker All-Round: Once again the quality of your first attack will tell the difference in the match. You must force the all-rounder into playing defensively. During the first few points, try topspins at different speeds, spins, locations, and heights to determine what kind of topspin will force him/her on the defensive. Serve mostly short to limit your opponent's attack.
Against the Counter Driver: Use short serves anywhere on the table, mixed with long chop serves to the backhand side. Your goal should be to play constant mixed topspins until a loose ball is forced. Only then, should a fast attack be used to finish the point.
Against the Attacking Chopper: Use short serves with an occasional long serve to the backhand side. The first attack should be to the middle followed by a series of safe topspins to the chopper's backhand side. High returns are better flat killed than looped.
Against the Close to the Table Defender: Similar tactics to playing the counter driver. However, even more patience is needed. High balls are better finished with a kill than a loop.
 
 
7. Close to the Table Defender
 
Definition:
 
This style is build around a chop/block executed from close to the table.  Players of this style most often use combination rackets with long-pips or anti-spin on one side and inverted rubber on the other.  Players of this style use under-spin blocks to force weak topspin shots from their opponents.  They will then attack the weak topspin with a well-placed drive or loop.  This style is often the master of placement but lacks real finishing power.
 
Strengths:
 

  • Very consistent close to the table chop/blocks.

 

  • Excellent serve and receive game.

 

  • Very accurate forehand drives.

 

  • Excellent short game using pushes and drop shots.

 

  • The ability to absorb their opponent’s strong opening shots.

 
Weaknesses:
 

  • No real power.

 

  • High looping balls directed to the backhand.

 
 

  • Hard balls directed towards the wide forehand.

 

  • No spin serves, loops, and pushes will often cause errors.

 
 
Tactics against Other Styles
 
Against the Attacker – Pips-Out Penholder: Keep most of your serves short.  Press backhand to backhand exchanges.  Do not over hit.  When attacking, go most often down-the-line.  Extend the points as long as possible.
 
Against the Attacker –Shake-hands Hitter: Same general tactics as above.  However, direct more balls at your opponent’s middle.
 
Against the Attacker - Inverted Power Looper: When serving, keep most serves short and try to follow with a safe 3rd ball attack.  Then vary your blocks until your opponent makes an error.  When receiving mix up your returns between drops, flips, and long pushes.  If you push long cut the sidelines of the table to force your opponent to move. 
 
Against the Attacker – All- Round: Against this style, you will need to attack more often.  However placement, not speed or spin, will force errors from your opponent.
 
Against the Counter Driver: Against this style, you must be very steady in your play.  Also, slow down the tempo of your blocks below the speed the counter driver enjoys.  When you get an opportunity to attack, a kill is preferred over a loop.
 
Against the Mid-Distance Aggressive Looper: Key your serves short.  Block fast and wide to the forehand.  When your opponent backs up to loop, drop short, then attack if possible.  Use a combination of deep and short blocks to keep the mid-distance looper moving in and out.  Attack down the line when possible.
 
Against the Attacking Chopper: Similar tactics to playing a counter driver should be used.  Play steady, moving the chopper in and out, as well as side-to-side.  Kill any loose returns.
 
 
8. Attacking Chopper
 
Definition:
 
This style can be best thought of as an attacker who uses under-spin to set up their attacking shots.  Players of this style most often use two different racket surfaces and will flip the racket to produce great variations in their defense and their attack.
 
Attacking Choppers usually have powerful forehand loops or kills.  They will strongly attack any weak return by their opponent, as well as any third ball opportunity.  For players of this style, patience and footwork are the keys for advancing to a high level.
 
Since the advent of the 40 mm ball, this style has evolved into one where almost every forehand return is attacked and backhand returns are chopped very heavy from a position somewhat closer to the table than in years’ past.
 
Strengths:
 

  • Great variation of strokes and spin puts opponents under a lot of pressure.

 

  • Strong forehand drives or kills.

 
 

  • Strong 3rd ball attacks.

 

  • Good movement and physical ability

 
 
Weaknesses:
 

  • Can become inpatient and attack the wrong ball.

 

  • Footwork when switching from chopping to topspin attack shots.

 

  • Defense may not stand up under pressure.

 

  • Too many options may result in some indecisiveness under pressure.

 
Tactics against Other Styles
 
Against the Attacker – Pips-Out Penholder: When serving keep most serves short and always look to third ball attack if the opportunity is there.  Your first chop should be directed deep to a corner to force your opponent to move and thus execute a weaker first attack. Then vary your chops trying to force the opponent into errors.  Attack any high slow moving ball or long drop shot.
 
 
Against the Attacker –Shake-hands Hitter: Same general tactics except you can direct more first chops wide to the forehand of the shake-hands hitter.
 
Against the Attacker – Inverted Power Looper:  Same general tactics as above but be even more careful to stay out of the middle with the first chop.  No spin chops mixed with heavy spin chops will be effective against this style.
 
Against the Attacker – All- Round: You will need a higher degree of attack against this style, as they are the most constant of attackers.  Also try some mid-distance serves.  If their return is slow, look to third ball attack.  Make this style play a lot out of their wide forehand corner.
 
Against the Counter Driver: You will need to be very patient against this style.  Do not take chances with your defense or attack.  Wait for a high ball then finish with a kill shot rather than a loop.
 
Against the Mid-Distance Aggressive Looper: Same general tactics as playing the Inverted Looper.  You must be ready for their strong backhand loop as well.  When you get an opportunity to attack, attack the middle.
 
Against the Close to the Table Defender: Same general tactics as playing against the counter driver.  You may get more opportunities to step around and use your forehand attack from the backhand corner.
 
 
 
 

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