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Hirano completes Asian championships run by outplaying Cheng in final

Kyodo

Miu Hirano completed a remarkable run at the Asian table tennis championships on Saturday, winning the women’s singles title after defeating the world’s top two players on their home turf.

The 17-year-old Hirano silenced the home crowd in the final, beating world No. 5 Cheng Ming in straight games 11-9, 11-8, 11-7 as she produced crisp strikes both off her forehand and backhand to keep the Chinese at bay.

On Friday, Hirano celebrated her birthday by beating Olympic champion and world No. 1 Ding Ning 3-11, 12-14, 11-9, 16-14, 12-10 in their quarterfinal. She followed that on Saturday by sending world No. 2 Zhu Yuling packing 11-7, 11-9, 11-8 in their semifinal.

Hirano, who in January became Japan’s youngest national champion, is the third Japanese to win an Asian title and the first in 21 years. Chire Koyama last accomplished the feat in 1996.

“I can’t figure out whether this is real,” Hirano said. “You have to be on the front foot against Chinese players. I could play really good table tennis.

“You can’t beat Chinese players three times just by luck and that boosts my confidence. I believe my raw ability has gone up.”

Hirano, a backup member of Japan’s bronze medal-winning team at the Rio Olympics, became the youngest winner of a World Cup event in October before she joined China’s Super League, and her growth since has been sharp.

“I’m so used to listening to Chinese anthems, and it’s really refreshing to hear the Japanese anthem,” she said after topping the podium.

Yoshihito Miyazaki, the head of development for the Japan Table Tennis Association said, “She’s getting stronger quicker than I expected, the overall pace (of play) is distinctively fast. Young players get stronger each match. … I think she’s one of the favorites at the world championships (in May).”

Hirano was on the brink of a quick defeat to Ding but grabbed the third game and survived five match points in the marathon fourth en route to claiming the famous win. The youngster was then at her aggressive best in dispatching Zhu.

“Last year on my birthday, Mima Ito beat Ding Ning at the Olympic qualifications as well, so I think my birthday is rather special,” Hirano told the ITTF website after her quarterfinal win. “My overall level has improved a lot recently, I just try to play my best form on court.”

In the men’s singles, where Rio men’s champion Ma Long of China was knocked out in the third round, Koki Niwa contributed to China’s angst.

The seventh seed defeated No. 3 seed Xu Xin of China 11-9, 11-8, 6-11, 11-6 in Saturday’s quarterfinals. In the semis on Sunday, Niwa will play South Korea’s Jeong Sang Eun, who defeated Ma before defeating Maharu Yoshimura 8-11, 15-13, 11-9, 11-8 in the quarterfinals.