Sunday, July 19, 2015

Japan's Hibino has yen for Stockton Challenger

Fifth-seeded Nao Hibino, left, beat top-seeded An-
Sophie Mestach 6-1, 7-6 (6) to win the inaugural
Stockton Challenger. Photo by Paul Bauman
   STOCKTON, Calif. -- Traveling alone for the first time and playing far from her native Japan, Nao Hibino did her best to feel at home on Sunday.
   When asked why she beat top-seeded An-Sophie Mestach of Belgium 6-1, 7-6 (6) to win the inaugural $50,000 USTA Pro Circuit Challenger, the fifth-seeded Hibino cracked in halting English with a laugh, "I had rice bowl before the match, so it gave me ... power."
   There was more to it, of course. Mild-mannered and polite in typical Japanese fashion off the court, the 20-year-old Hibino transforms into Godzilla on it.
   Most impressive are Hibino's groundstrokes and mental toughness. Both her forehand and two-handed backhand are weapons. Plus, she saved all seven break points against her in the final and converted three of her four break points, yelling "Yeah!" or "C'mon!" after winning big points. Hibino won all three of her tiebreakers in the semifinals and finals, and never lost a set in five tournament matches.
   Hibino also has superb touch, repeatedly hitting perfect lobs for winners. And for someone only 5-foot-4 (1.63 meters) and 132 pounds (60 kilograms), she has good pop on her serve. She refuses to hit overheads, instead taking swinging forehand volleys a la Andre Agassi.
   Weaknesses? Hibino can be overpowered by bigger, stronger players. But Mestach, a 21-year-old Fed Cup veteran and the world's top junior in 2011, also is undersized at 5-foot-7 (1.70 meters) and 141 pounds (64 kilograms). Neither player hit an ace in the final.   
   "If I play more my game -- be more aggressive and serve better -- I should beat her," Mestach insisted, even though she lost to Hibino 6-2, 6-2 on grass two months ago in their only previous meeting. "But that wasn't the case today, so she deserved to win."
   After winning championship point Sunday at the University of the Pacific, Hibino dropped her racket, put her head in her hands, shook Mestach's hand and bowed to each side of the court amid a hearty round of applause from the crowd.
   Reading from notes in her acceptance speech, Hibino said: "I had some concerns before coming here because this is my first (time traveling) by myself. However, the peaceful atmosphere, delicious food and kind people made my stay great. And now I love it here very much. I hope to come back next year. Thank you."
Hibino has tremendous groundstrokes and mental
toughness. Photo by Paul Bauman
   If all goes well, though, Hibino could graduate to the WTA tour in the next year. She jumped 33 places in the world rankings to a career-high No. 140 with the title and needs to crack the top 100 to play full-time in the major leagues of women's tennis.
   The athletic, muscular Mestach is almost there. She rose only seven spots to No. 104, just off her career high of No. 100 last November, because she reached the quarterfinals in Carson during the same week last year.
   The rankings are based on a 52-week revolving system; results from one week replace those from the corresponding week last year.
   Mestach is distinctive in several ways. She has short blond hair; she takes a huge windup on her forehand; her shoes screech as she slides on hardcourts, as if she were playing on clay back home; and, most of all, she is a Hall of Fame ball bouncer.
   Mestach bounces the ball 20 to 30 times before every serve, first and second. The Japanese government changes about three times while Mestach prepares to serve. It took all of five service points for Mestach to receive a time violation warning Sunday, although she was never penalized.
   Nothing seemed to bother Hibino, though. She won her sixth professional and third Challenger ($25,000 and above) singles title but first outside of Japan. Mestach also was seeded first in a $50,000 grass-court tournament in Kurume in May, but Hibino beat her en route to the championship.    
   "Everyone said I won (Kurume) because it's in Japan, so I'm happy to prove I can win outside of Japan," Hibino said.
   Hibino's coach, Keiji Takeuchi, was busy working for the Japan Tennis Association last week, but Hibino said he will join her today for this week's $50,000 Sacramento Challenger at the Gold River Racquet Club. Mestach also plans to play in the tournament.
   Hibino bolted to a 5-0 lead in the first set against Mestach, who spent most of the time watching passing shots whiz by her in the corners. After Mestach finally held serve, Hibino saved three break points and won the first set when Mestach floated an easy backhand volley way long.
   Mestach played more aggressively in the second set, and Hibino began to make errors. There were no breaks, as Hibino saved two break points at 1-2 and two more at 3-4.
   "You have to (capitalize on) these chances," Mestach asserted. "Otherwise, you pay the price."
   Hibino earned her first championship point when Mestach slugged a forehand long to trail 6-5 in the tiebreaker. But with Mestach now serving, Hibino netted a runaround forehand.
Mestach said fatigue hurt her in the final. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Mestach then slapped a runaround forehand long to give Hibino another championship point, this one on Hibino's serve. Hibino ripped a crosscourt forehand into the corner, and a sliding Mestach netted a forehand.
    "I didn't play well in the first set," conceded Mestach, who was seeking her seventh professional and sixth Challenger singles title. "It was not good, but I fought my way back into the match and had some chances in the second set, but I felt a bit tired today. I've been playing a lot of long matches, so I felt more tired.
   "That didn't help much today. But I tried my best and kept on working hard, and I think my attitude was good. The tennis wasn't there today, but OK. I played (in the) finals, so I hope I made the cut of U.S. Open. I think I'm in."
   Hibino earned $7,600 and Mestach $4,053.
   The Challenger originally was scheduled to be played at the new Eve Zimmerman Tennis Complex at Pacific. But because of delays, construction on the $4 million facility will begin this week, Challenger tournament director Ryan Redondo said.
   The 12 courts are scheduled to be finished in late October, and the 5,500-square-foot clubhouse is set for completion next spring, according to Redondo.
   Eve Zimmerman-Short, who played for Pacific in the early 1980s, donated at least $1.5 million for the project. Zimmerman-Short has a legendary passion for tennis. While playing for the Tigers, she was so excited about the resurfaced courts that she kissed them. 
   Redondo, the men's tennis coach at Pacific, said the new complex had "a lot" to do with the United States Tennis Association bringing the Challenger to Stockton.
   "We want to make sure we do justice to the facility," Redondo said. "Eve is very interested in events like that. We want to make this a tennis Mecca in Northern California."
   Stockton needs all the help it can get. Because of high foreclosure, unemployment and crime rates, Forbes magazine in 2010 named the city of 300,000 people one of the three worst places in the United States to live. In 2012, Stockton became the largest city in U.S. history to file for bankruptcy protection.
  Countered Redondo: "Stockton is a great city that doesn't get the respect it deserves. People are great here."    

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