Sunday, July 7, 2013

Hibi, 17, stages huge comeback for Gold River title

Mayo Hibi, right, saved nine set points in the first set of her
7-5, 6-0 win over ailing Madison Brengle, left, in the final of
the $50,000 FSP Gold River Challenger. Photo by Paul Bauman
   GOLD RIVER, Calif. — It's easy to underestimate Mayo Hibi.
   After all, she's 17 years old, stands 5-foot-5 (1.65 meters) and weighs 117 pounds (53 kilograms). She could be mistaken for a ballgirl. She doesn't crush the ball like Ivana Lisjak or Alisa Kleybanova.
   But Hibi is versatile, smart and mentally tough. The Japanese-born resident of Irvine in Southern California displayed each quality, especially her fortitude, in a 7-5, 6-0 victory over ailing Madison Brengle on Saturday night in the final of the $50,000 FSP Gold River Women's Challenger.
   Incredibly, the unseeded Hibi saved nine set points in the first set against the fifth-seeded Brengle. After trailing 4-0 and 5-1 in the first set, Hibi reeled off 12 straight games for the title at the Gold River Racquet Club in the Sacramento area.
   From the second through fourth games of the opening set, Hibi won only four points.
   "She was playing really well," Hibi, an amateur, said after winning her second consecutive title in a professional tournament and third overall. "The only thing I could come up with was just, don't give up and just fight back. I had to work really hard to get one point off of her.
   "As I was fighting back, I was kind of able to figure her game out. I knew from the beginning that she likes pace. It was hard to find the balance between being patient and going for it because I can't just rally all day long. I want to finish the points off with my shots."
Naomi Broady, far right, and Storm Sanders, second from right,
beat Robin Anderson, far left, and Lauren Embree, second from
left, for the doubles title. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Brengle, 23, of Bradenton, Fla., squandered six set points while serving at 5-3 in the first set and three with Hibi serving at 4-5. Brengle, frustrated by Hibi's relentlessness and by questionable line calls, became angry and promptly dropped the 56-minute set. While losing her serve at 5-5, Brengle muttered, "I'm ready to pull my hair out."
   Mentally and physically spent, Brengle won only eight points in the 24-minute second set.
   "After being up 5-1, she lost the set, and it's pretty upsetting for anyone," Hibi said. "It seemed like she couldn't switch her mind to a fresh new start in the second set."    
   Toward the end of the second set, Brengle was going through the motions. She hit her first serve softly and barely moved for balls. 
   "I ran out of gas, to say the least," Brengle told the crowd afterward.
   Later, she declined an interview request and rushed to a car.
   "I feel really sick," Brengle moaned. "I've been throwing up all day. I don't know what's wrong, but I don't want to throw up here again."
   Hibi played in the final of a $50,000 tournament or higher for the first time. Let's face it, though. A favorable draw helped her win the title. Hibi beat:
    —Another 17-year-old, Victoria Duval, seeded eighth, in the first round.
    —Diminutive qualifier Jessica Lawrence, 19, in the second round.
    —Out-of-shape Alexandra Stevenson, 32, in the quarterfinals.
    —Unseeded Allie Will, who had won all three of her previous matches in three sets in extreme heat, in the semifinals.
    —And the ill Brengle in the final.
   On the other hand, Hibi also won a $25,000 event in Las Cruces, N.M., last month. She attributed her hot streak to relaxing.
   "The tournament before Las Cruces, I lost first round main draw (in El Paso, Texas)," she said. "I was up in the third set, and I got way too tight. I just missed too many (shots). I just told myself to go out there and have fun and just focus on your game, win or lose. It's been helping me a lot. I play much better, I move much better, and I think much better -- what's working and what's not."
   Hibi's father, a sales manager for a branch of a Japanese music company, taught her an old-school game featuring a one-handed backhand and occasional volleys.
   "My dad liked that style more than the modern game," said Hibi, a Japanese citizen who has lived in California since she was 2 1/2. "Since I'm not going to be 6-foot tall like Maria Sharapova, since I'm going to be one of the shortest and smallest players on the tour, my dad knew I had to do something different from everyone else to become one of the top players like Justine Henin. She (had) an all-court game." 
   Soichi Hibi, Mayo said, began playing tennis in high school in Japan.
   "The system is really different in Japan. I heard he only picked up balls for the seniors his first year. He hit against the wall for seven hours a day. He was really into it," Mayo said.
   Hibi's coaches, former touring pros Debbie Graham and Chris Lewis, also have been major influences. Graham, the 1990 NCAA champion from Stanford, reached No. 35 in the world in singles in 1992 and No. 24 in doubles in 1994. Lewis advanced to the 1983 Wimbledon final, losing to John McEnroe.
   "Not a lot of people get to receive coaching from such great players," Hibi said. "They've been to the top, and they know what it takes to get there. Chris is very strict, but I'm pretty sure that's what's helping me mentally and game-wise."
   Hibi will soar from No. 304 in the world to a career-high No. 247 when the new rankings are released on Monday. She can accept only expense money and $10,000 annually from the $7,600 first prize.
   Brengle, who will improve from No. 219 to No. 199, earned $4,053. 
   The home-schooled Hibi will be a high school senior in the fall. She plans to decide by the end of the year whether to turn pro or go to college, perhaps at Stanford or UCLA.
   "I'm leaning toward turning pro," Hibi revealed. "At the beginning of the year, I thought, 'I really need to go to college.' I thought I might not make it in the pros. But right now, I'm feeling more confident with my game."
   Either way, keep an eye on her.
   Lisjak fined — Lisjak paid a $250 fine for unsportsmanlike conduct after losing to Brengle in Friday's semifinals, USTA supervisor Billie Lipp said.
   Lisjak, a 26-year-old Croat who lives in Las Vegas, threw her racket toward her bag in disgust after blowing a 5-3 lead in the third set and falling 6-3, 3-6, 7-5. The racket missed the bag, skipped off the court and hit a lineswoman in the face. She had a welt above one eye but did not seek medical attention.
At Gold River Racquet Club
  In Gold River, Calif.
Singles final
   Mayo Hibi, Japan, def. Madison Brengle (5), United States, 7-5, 6-0.
Doubles final
   Naomi Broady, Great Britain, and Storm Sanders, Australia, def. Robin Anderson and Lauren Embree, United States, 6-3, 6-4.


  1. Enjoyed your article Paul. Thanks to Livestreaming on the USTA website, I was able to watch both the semi-final and the final. In both matches, Mayo was mentally tough, physically strong and strategically smart. An exceptionally mature display for a 17 year old.

    1. Thank you, Chris. I covered your Wimbledon final 30 years ago for the ATP newspaper. I look forward to following Mayo's promising career. Paul

  2. Paul, I thought your name was familiar. I think I may still have the article you wrote. Chris