21 Aug 2019

At 16 years of age, Japan's fan favourite is already a serious force on the international table tennis stage but after a stop-start year to 2019, and after winning the Bulgaria Open last week, we take a look at what brought Tomokazu Harimoto to the mantle of leading Japan in the future.

by Kabir Nagpal

Adaptability is very much a key to success; when only 13 years old, Tomakazu Harimoto underlined that fact. The following is an excerpt from a member at Butterfly’s Research and Development speaking about the Japanese prodigy:

“Tomokazu is only 13 years old but he is very strong. His father, Yu, selects the equipment for him and Tomokazu uses it to good effect. I have the impression that he can adjust not only his techniques but also equipment thanks to Yu.”- Ma Jia

Champion from the start

Since his days at National Championships, completing a clean sweep of the titles in the age groups from under eight years to under 13 years; if there were any doubts, his exploits in Cape Town in 2016 resolved all. Having become the youngest ever World Junior champion, Harimoto had now had every eye on him, with expectations of a nation completely in love with the sport.

This was only a preview of what was to come, as he rose through 2016 into an even bigger year in 2017. He was crowned the youngest ever (again!) singles champion on the ITTF World Tour when he won in the Czech Republic.

Just like every good thriller story, the tale of Tomokazu Harimoto reached a summit. He won big on home soil, the 2018 Japan Open and then shortly again when became the youngest athlete ever to win the men’s singles trophy at the 2018 World Tour Grand Finals in Incheon, making his fans absolutely ecstatic.

Victim of his own success

Now at this juncture, not only had the world spotted the next big thing for Japan, they also wanted to know what kept him going. Every match video of his was the subject of a million views and his opponents quickly – and critically – analysed him, levelling the playing field. Now, while this is standard procedure given the competitive sport of table tennis, it meant that the upcoming teenager from Japan would hit a roadblock.

During the last three years, Harimoto had gone through consistent changes with his equipment involving both the rubbers and the blades. While his techniques and power increased dramatically from 2016 to 2019, not many people know the fact that he had fine-tuned his equipment along with his growth.

His father and coach, Yu Harimoto had always picked his equipment. He spoke about how his son had to consistently adjust with the choices he made:

“Tenergy 05 was fast for me when I tried it but Tomokazu was still small at that time, so I deemed he would not be able to make full use its performance due to a lack of power. Stability is more important than power in equipment. Weight is also one of the points to be taken into account. So I selected Tenergy 64 for his forehand and Tenergy 64 FX 1.9 for his backhand, considering in particular stability and weight. I wanted to make his racket lighter by choosing softer sponge.”- Yu Harimoto

The most important thing while selecting equipment has to be balance and stability.

At the 2019 Japan Open, defending Champion Harimoto faced Chinese Sun Wen in round one of the men’s singles draw; this was a match Harimoto was anticipated to progress from, but the no.4 seed suffered defeat by a crushing 4-0 score-line (11-8, 11-5, 11-7, 11-8).

The defeat hurt the Japanese more because it came after three competitions of “what-ifs” where he had reached the final in Hong Kong, the semi-finals in China and the quarter-finals in Doha. It felt like his opponents had figured him out, as he could not crack his way through to the latter stages of World Tour events in 2019. In Australia – again – he was eliminated in the Round of 32 by Wang Chuqin, the same Chinese athlete who defeated him weeks ago in Korea at the quarter-final stage.

Not all rainbows and sunshine for this youngster.
Time for redemption?

The weight of expectation has been a double blow for Harimoto. As a young Asian table tennis athlete, the danger remains that too much is expected of him. Because of his previous successes, having no ITTF World Tour titles in 2019 was something highly unexpected – meaning his world ranking fell from third to fifth.

It is at such a point when one might want to remember that the legendary Ma Long played in four World Championships before he won one – now the Dragon has three. Perhaps the virtue of patience truly imbibed into Tomokazu Harimoto last week, when he proved to be the one player in Bulgaria who could match the speed of China’s Zhao Zihao:

Up until the final, no one had managed to deal with the 22-year-old’s electric speed play. Harimoto showed that he had simply too much in his experience at the top level and matched Zhao shot for shot.

“I feel very strong mentally and, even though I lost a couple of games during the final, I managed to fight and never gave up. I kept going and ended up winning. I’m not going to take things easy now. I’ll keep pushing on to reach new heights.” – Tomokazu Harimoto

This win was the first time Harimoto had spoken of his plans for the future with such confidence. It was admirable to see how much mental growth the 16-year-old had gone through to come out of a rough patch with such a powerful performance.

From the time of his rubber changes, to the variety his style had to take after being extensively analysed, it is safe to say that his strength is his high quality to adapt to the challenges he faces. Technically speaking, Harimoto uses the skill keeping the ball travelling long when needed and the delicate backspin push to keep the ball short against speedy players like Zhao Zihao.

Opportunity knocks in Olomouc

The manner of his victory in Panagyurishte is the measure of the man he is quickly becoming. It displayed patience and grit, something unseen in a lot of 16-year-olds.

Tomokazu Harimoto had changed the backhand rubber in his equipment to TENERGY 05 FX back in September 2015 and soon changed the thickness from 1.9 to 2.1 mm. These changes have taken time for him to adjust to, but now give him superior speed as well as a greater variety of strokes. We only recently saw what he can do when he’s fully adjusted to the situation at hand.

Now the question remains, can the Japanese prodigy maintain his form with another immaculate showing at the 2019 ITTF World Tour Czech Open?

I will do my best to become World no.1, World champion, and Olympic champion. I hope table tennis fans support me on my path towards these aims. – Tomokazu Harimoto

With such targets for the future, we remain deeply interested where the Japanese will head to next. Follow his journey on the World Tour right here with ITTF and watch his matches on itTV!

World Tour Features 2019 Czech Open Tomokazu Harimoto 2019 Czech Open

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