by Kabir Nagpal
The youngest Japanese player to halt Chinese dominance after winning the women’s singles title at the 2017 ITTF-Asian Championships, the 19 year old has performed sufficiently well for all to have confidence in her ability.
Leading Japan at a young age
Despite the prowess of her senior colleague Kasumi Ishikawa, ever since her appearance on the grand stage for Japan, Hirano was labelled as the ‘next big thing’ to come out of the country.
The time period of 2016-2017 was special for Hirano; she lifted the Uncle Pop 2016 ITTF Women’s World Cup on her debut in Philadelphia, United States. The win brought her attention from across the globe and, keeping that spirit, she did not disappoint at the next grand event.
At the 2017 Asian Championships, her win over China’s Chen Meng in straight games made her not just the youngest ever but also the first Japanese player to win the prestigious crown in 20 years.
Imagine for a second the wave of happiness and responsibility that the then 17 year old Hirano must have experienced. Jumping for joy, she showed class in a display that signified she was meant for greater things, especially after having taken care of then world no.2 Zhu Yuling and Olympic champion Ding Ning on her road to the final.
The performances had featured shortly after her progression in the Chinese Super League in 2016; this made a huge difference in the manner of her approach towards the Chinese players and style of play.
“The Chinese have great skills and techniques, this competition made me feel that the difference between our levels has narrowed. I’m very happy and surprised with my victory. I had never thought that I could defeat the Chinese players, let alone upset three in a row. Previously against Ding Ning, I had never won, not even a game off her. I will now work harder to make the overall difference even smaller between us.” Miu Hirano
It was the first time in a long time someone had challenged the Chinese elite female players and managed to ruffle the features of their best players at such a high stakes tournament. It was the birth of an elite table tennis athlete, one on par with the Chinese.
Capping off 2019 with Team World Cup glory?
Success but with such a build up so early in her career, Miu Hirano had to adjust with what came next: the scrutinisation of her playing style and mannerisms best fit to defeat her. Sensing this and with the help of her personal coach (an ex-Chinese athlete), Hirano’s playing style was altered to the aggressive hard counter style.
Thus her forehand technique was adapted to the “new trends in table tennis”, wherein with the new ball, the top players are now gaining a split second more to react to the incoming shot. It meant the speed of the ball was increased – so were the rallies. Hence, the nickname ‘Hurricane’ was born.
She has become renowned for her rapid, attacking play; this has brought her the respect of all her colleagues – no matter the faction of table tennis. In this year alone, she has reached the final of the ITTF World Tour Czech Open and made consistent semi-finals appearances at the Japan and Hong Kong Opens as well as at the ITTF Challenge Plus Oman Open.
Additionally, she has experienced runners-up finishes in doubles with Saki Shibata at the 2019 ITTF World Tour Czech and Bulgaria Opens. Also partnering Kasumi Ishikawa, she reached the semi-finals of the ITTF-ATTU Asian Championships women’s doubles event.
Hirano’s next immediate target remains the Zen-Noh 2019 ITTF Team World Cup starting on Sunday 6th November. She heads to the event with tremendous experience having been a runner up at the Liebherr 2018 World Championships in Halmstad, Sweden. Competing for Japan in the women’s team event will be the effervescent Miyu Kato alongside Hirano and helping them along with their immense quality will be ITTF Challenge Thailand Open winner Hitomi Sato, Saki Shibata and double Olympic Games team medallist Kasumi Ishikawa (silver in 2012, bronze in 2016).
A Grand mission at home
At the Olympic Games in 2016, Hirano missed out on the trip despite a miraculous season for the then 16 year old; this episode has motivated her into working harder towards securing a spot to fight for gold on home soil.
In the women’s singles selection race for the Tokyo Olympic Games, the decision is very much between Kasumi Ishikawa, Mima Ito and Miu Hirano.
“Athletes who are chosen for the Olympic Games are not normal in a good sense, or are superman. I always thought it would be a tournament that I could not attend if I did not work to get the right to participate in it. Hopefully I can make it this time” Miu Hirano
The young Japanese player has made it no secret that this would be a dream. Playing across multiple international tournaments to earn points in the world ranking, her mission to reach a home Olympic Games is the singular most important target for her.
Undoubtedly the effect is that Hirano has experienced a tough schedule that goes around three countries in one month; her strong determination towards the Olympic Games is the motivating factor. In the spirit of making her dreams come true she has already worked with the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Official Video Game, and is Japan’s face for the Olympics.
Rest assured, she will want to be more than be part of the video game advert in Tokyo next year. What remains to be seen is what can she achieve in the coming months.