At the World Table Tennis Championships held in Budapest, Hungary in April 2019, Harimoto lost to the 157th seed South Korean AN Jaehyun - failing to advance to the final eight despite being ranked fourth in the world.
“I felt absolutely mortified at this one-and-only defeat,” the Japanese teenager said whilst sobbing.
However, at the ensuing ITTF World Tour Bulgaria Open, Harimoto put the upset firmly behind him by defeating ZHAO Zihao, an up-and-coming People’s Republic of China player, to secure the title. Again, at the All Japan Table Tennis Championships held in January this year, he was defeated by UDA Yukiya, also a high school student and Harimoto’s long-standing rival at the JOC Elite Academy.
“Anything other than No.1 is a defeat. Suddenly, I had lost self-confidence,” Harimoto remarked with downcast eyes.
However, in February he beat Uda at the ITTF World Tour Hungary Open final, capturing his first victory on the 2020 tour.
“The disappointment I had felt last year stuck with me the whole time and I’ve always wanted to take revenge,” he said.
For Harimoto, losing always serves to make him stronger.
The teenage prodigy is highly regarded by table tennis experts as a once-in-a-century talent, the roots of which can be found in his family. Harimoto’s parents were both professional table tennis players. His father, HARIMOTO Yu, who currently coaches junior boys representing Japan, and his mother, ZHANG Ling, who once represented the People’s Republic of China in the World Championships, ushered their son into the world of table tennis when he was just two years old.
His talent immediately became apparent. The prodigy conquered the All Japan Championships (Bambi division) when he was just a first-year pupil in elementary school. He subsequently achieved six consecutive victories without a single defeat in the Bambi (second year or under), Cubs (fourth year or under) and Hopes (sixth year or under) divisions. Ever since, he has demonstrated stunning growth that nobody in the table tennis community could have foreseen.
After joining the JOC Elite Academy in 2016, at the age of 13 years and 163 days, he became the youngest singles champion at the World Junior Table Tennis Championships - capturing titles in both the team and singles events.
His undefeated streak continued, as he became the youngest player in the world to win the singles title at the ITTF World Tour Czech Open, beating the record previously held by ITO Mima.
At 15 years and 172 days, he won the ITTF World Tour Grand Final, the youngest player ever to do so, and rose to number three in the world, becoming the highest ever ranked player in Japan.
Contrary to everyone’s expectation that the momentum would continue until Tokyo 2020, things started to go off track when Harimoto failed to take a second consecutive crown in the All Japan Championships in January 2019.
Other leading world players had started to rigorously analyse his style of table tennis, an inevitable consequence that all defending champions face. Unable to display his full potential, Harimoto could not claim a widely-anticipated medal, losing in the last 16 in April.
“My opponents had gradually become used to my fast-paced style of play and worked out tactics to defeat me, but I didn’t change, which resulted in frequent losses,” he reflected.
He was suddenly confronted with not being able to win, which pushed him to the verge of losing self-confidence in his own playing style.
“I need more than my backhand to win,” he realised.
He started working on his forehand to transform his playing style, to avoid becoming over dependent on his backhand.
“I tried to work on my lower body, increase training of my footwork and legs, and focus on maintaining a good form to reduce errors,” he remarked.
Harimoto, who is already a ‘practice addict’, trained even harder to strengthen his forehands. As a result, the speed and strength of his forehand shots, which had been somewhat weaker than his backhands, began to improve.
It was in November 2019, at the Team World Cup held at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, a Tokyo 2020 Games venue, that his progress became apparent. He was making bold forehand attacks in a style clearly different from before.
Though he lost against England in the first match, he won both singles and he was selected to play in the winner-takes-all battle against Austria. Then, in the quarter-finals, he defeated German players in two singles matches. In the semi-finals, despite losing to his Chinese opponent, he had occasionally managed to overpower his formidable opponent with his forehand.
His forehand, which used to be regarded as his weak point, was showing signs of turning into his strength. At the semi-finals of the ITTF Men’s World Cup held in Chengdu, China in December 2019, Harimoto stayed ahead of the game against MA Long by capitalising on his powerful backhand, finally defeating the world champion who had three back-to-back titles. It was the youngster’s forehand shots that captured the decisive points.
On 6 January 2020, Japan’s national table tennis squad for Tokyo 2020 was announced.
“The year 2019 was tough for me because I couldn’t regain the momentum that I had enjoyed in 2018. I feel relieved to have been selected for the Olympic Games, because it has been my childhood dream,” Harimoto said, adding that his family also rejoiced and congratulated him.
When he thought about Tokyo 2020, he came up with a notion that had been at the back of his mind — to capitalise and fight with his signature backhand!
“Most of all, it was my backhand that carried me through to the Olympic Games. Whether I win or lose, I will have no regrets if I can fight with my backhand. I’d be satisfied if I could be on the offense by harnessing my fast backhand shots, like before,” he said.
(c) Tokyo 2020
“In the Olympic Games, the singles event precedes the team event, so I hope to fully concentrate on the singles first and win my first medal. If I can achieve this, I believe I will be able to play well and contribute to the team.”
It is the Chinese players who stand in his way. With the exception of the Athens 2004 Games, the People’s Republic of China have swept all gold medals at Olympic Games from Atlanta 1996 to Rio 2016. They have also dominated the team event, which made its debut on the Olympic programme in Beijing 2008.
“I was able to play a good match against Ma Long because I had Tokyo 2020 in mind. I was ultimately defeated in the final, so I hope to challenge myself to win in the final at Tokyo 2020. I need to gain four games to win a match. I am usually able to attack aggressively in games two and three, but I tend to let myself relax when I begin to sense victory, so the key is to stay on the offensive right to the end of game four,” the Japanese teenager said.
Regarding the team event, Harimoto stated with conviction: “The chance of winning the gold medal is higher than in the singles event. I hope the three players can join forces together, along with the head coach and the reserve player, to fight through to the very end. If we can win the first doubles match, our opponents will feel immense pressure, which will give us an advantage in the ensuing singles matches. The key lies in how much pressure we can put on our opponents at the start. If we succeed with this strategy, we will have a good chance of earning the gold medal.”
Harimoto started dreaming of playing at the Olympic Games in his sixth year of elementary school. Although the Tokyo 2020 Games were postponed to 2021, the six players selected to represent Japan, including Harimoto, will remain unchanged, as decided at the directors’ meeting of the Japan Table Tennis Association.
“For each and every player, the goal will be to produce tangible results. Personally speaking, I believe I will have opportunities to compete in future Olympic Games too, so at Tokyo 2020 I hope to play in a way that will leave me with no regrets and that helps me pave the way to the future,” he commented.
On non-training days, the 17-year-old enjoys going to the cinema and karaoke. He especially loves singing songs sung by Official HIGE Dandism, a Japanese pop band also known as HIGE DAN. In the meantime, we are left waiting to see what mark he will leave in Tokyo, where he will make his Olympic Games debut.
“I believe the Olympic Games in Japan will be a once-in-a-life-time event, so I hope to be able to put on an exciting show that will encourage the spectators. I’m quite self-confident, so I’m really looking forward to the Games, and I hope I can have fun playing while achieving the expectations I have for myself. I also hope that everyone will have high expectations of me, and that I will be able to play as expected and earn nice-coloured medals. I would appreciate your support,” he said.
(c) Tokyo 2020