French Open: Hirota Makes Tentative Return

Three months after she suffered a second career-threatening injury, Sayaka Hirota endured a nervy return to competition.

Hirota and Yuki Fukushima were nearly bundled out of the YONEX French Open 2024 by USA’s Annie Xu and Kerry Xu. With Hirota not moving fluently, Fukushima had a lot of ground to cover, and for much of the match their opponents sought to exploit that. The Japanese survived match point in the second game before stepping on the pedal in the third.

It was in the semifinals of the Syed Modi International last December that Hirota fell to the floor clutching her left knee. The Japanese were No.4 then in the Race to Paris, and the comparisons with their last Olympic campaign were inevitable, for a similar injury to her right knee had put paid to their chances at Tokyo 2020.

Hirota in knee brace.

“It’s been three months since we played any competition, so of course I was very nervous,” said Hirota. “I knew I would be targeted, so I had to move better. Fukushima covered everything, especially at the back.”

Ironically, Hirota said the familiarity with the injury had convinced her she could still attempt qualification for Paris 2024. She had to take an important decision on whether or not to go for surgery.

“It was my second time, and it was the same kind of injury that I had in Tokyo, so I guessed what was going on, and so during training I knew I could come back and play in a few months,” said Hirota.

“After I got the injury, I thought I’d get surgery, but I wasn’t sure. I went to my parents’ house and tried to relax and think about it. I eventually decided not to go for surgery, I decided to postpone it for after the Olympics.”

USA twins Annie Xu and Kerry Xu.

Her partner said it was a period with mixed emotions. “I was wondering about a lot of things. I was worried about her condition, so I wasn’t really sure what to think; it was a difficult feeling.”

Interestingly, the Japanese never played a single competitive game over the last few months – not even in training.

“So at the beginning of the match today, we were caught by surprise,” said Fukushima. “We were unsure about our movement. I was in panic when we were match point down. We tried to be patient. When Hirota was in front, I felt I needed to control the game.”

Having survived to fight a second day in Paris, Fukushima and Hirota face Treesa Jolly/Gayatri Gopichand Pullela, who overcame compatriots Tanisha Crasto/Ashwini Ponnappa 16-21 21-19 21-17.


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