It was a cruel reality check for Miu Hirano as her surging run of form came to a shuddering end in the Japan Open quarterfinals, but the 17-year-old vowed to rebuild her game to again challenge China’s top players.
Her straight-games defeat (7-11, 8-11, 5-11, 7-11) to Chen Meng on Saturday came in a surprising manner, as Hirano was beaten while playing her favored fast, attacking style. She believes that not only world No. 5 Chen, but other players from China, the sports’ hotbed, have begun to mark her rise.
“I had been winning in rallies but then I was losing them and began to crumble,” Hirano said Saturday. “She didn’t make mistakes with her serves and returns, she was hitting to the edge during rallies, and finding ways to counter. That is where I have work to do.”
After having to watch the Japan team win the Olympic bronze at the Rio Games last summer as a reserve, Hirano became the youngest player to win a World Cup event in October before having a brief spell in the Chinese Super League, and her rise had shown no sign of stopping this year.
In January, at the age of 16, Hirano became Japan’s youngest national champion, but the biggest shock came with the Asian Championship in April, when she beat China’s then world Nos. 1, 2 and 5 — including Olympic gold medalist and world champ Ding Ning, and Chen in the final.
“I wasn’t seen as a rival before, but something’s different for sure,” Hirano said. “They weren’t preparing any countermeasures before, so I believe that’s where things changed.”
Hirano lost to Ding in the semifinals at last month’s worlds but finished third, becoming the first Japanese to medal in 48 years. A Japan Open title would have been a fitting outcome before a home crowd.
It wasn’t to be, however, as Hirano was thwarted by Chen’s low spin returns. Still, in the future she might look back and see this tournament as a turning point in her career.
“I crumble when the other player tries to not let me play the way I do, so I want to become a player who doesn’t fall regardless of where I am attacked,” she said. “I don’t want to get bogged down by whatever they come up with to stop me, but instead gain an ability that can adapt to them.”
The defeat brought her back down to earth. But while acknowledging the depth of Chinese talent, Hirano was taking positives out of the meet and has set her sights on upcoming opportunities to make up for the setback at home.
“I thought I had caught up with Chinese players but was reminded how strong they are,” she said. “I think they came to face me thinking they can’t lose to me twice in a row.
“I can find new things to work on by playing with different types of players (at tournaments) . . . I think there will be lots of Chinese players taking part at the China Open (from next week) so I’ll try to beat them there or at the Australian Open (in July).”
Mizutani falls in semifinals
Japan’s fourth seed Jun Mizutani went out of the Japan Open in the men’s singles semifinals after succumbing 4-1 (7-11, 6-11, 10-12, 11-9, 8-11) to second seed Fan Zhendong on Sunday.
Mizutani gave the home faithful at Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium a lift by winning the fourth game, but his slow start cost him dearly as he failed to stave off a defeat that dashed of hopes of a Japanese appearing in a singles final.
“I’m disappointed not to make the final,” Mizutani said. “I lost the first two games quickly and was in a really bad spell. But I was matching him in the fourth and fifth games. If I can put in a performance like that I’ll have chance next time.”
Mizutani missed two serves to drop the first game and misplaced strokes cost him another. The nine-time defending Japan champ finally found a higher gear in the third to match the steady and aggressive Fan, forcing deuce from 10-8 down. But a sharp backhand drive to a corner saw another game go to the second-ranked Chinese.