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I Have To Be An Ace With Whom Nobody Can Disagree In Terms Of Competence – (Part 2-2)

Interview with Tomokazu Harimoto

There are several turning points for athletes, where they are forced to make big choices in their individual athletic lives. There are many cases the choice made at that time can often drastically change their playing careers; either entering further education or being employed? Playing either inside the native country or abroad? Playing either as an amateur or a professional? Either retiring or continuing an athletic career?

The following series of interviews focuses on players at a turning point in their careers and the reasons of their decisions.

Following the first edition, Tomokazu Harimoto (JPN) answers and tells us about his challenges, the internal selection for the Paris Olympic Games, his equipment and so on.

Q. It is difficult to simultaneously pursue stability not to yield to lower-ranked players and have explosive power to defeat higher-ranked players; what kind of player do you strive to be?

A. In terms of explosive power, I think I have because I have defeated some Chinese players including Ma Long, but I think I am short of stability, just as I lost at the Tokyo Olympics and the World Table Tennis Championships Finals in Houston last year.

I think I cannot say that I am a true first-class player until I make it to the quarter-finals and semi-finals by winning against low-ranked players every time, building the explosive power at the same time. The only thing I can do is to accumulate experience step by step.

Q. What do you think was lacking at the matches you lost against low-ranked players?

A. I was not calm enough when I competed against Darko Jorgic (SLO) at the Tokyo Olympic Games and Jakub Dyjas (POL) at the 2021 World Championships Finals. To be honest, I mistakenly started those matches without resolving my thoughts on what to do; I felt pressure.

Regarding my performance, the match against Dyjas was worse than the one against Jorgic. At the 2021 WTTC, I had a feeling that the shock defeat at the Tokyo Olympic Games cast a dark shadow on me, I repeated a similar result. I could not win the match though I was close to winning; I ended up with the similar performance.

However, now that I achieved an emotional closure to the loss and I know how I should have proceeded with the match then, I think I have already reflected on the loss properly.

Q. What is your problem technically?

A. There were many cases I continued to make mistakes on my forehand strokes during matches, I thought too much about compensating such mistakes and my aim somehow became not to make mistakes with my forehand; thus, I could not help thinking of how to avoid mistakes even when I had to score points at any cost. In such cases, I went negative and could not make any powerful strokes with my backhand. It was not because of my technically weakened backhand strokes, but because of my way of thinking; I can make a powerful stroke in practice, so I think the problem is not technical but a matter of consciousness.

I normally spend more time for forehand in practice, but sometimes I cannot score points without improving the quality of my backhand stroke. I was able to reconfirm my backhand-centric playing style a bit before the LION Cup and I won the title there, so I think I can win just like before if I continue attacking with my backhand, even when I make some mistakes with my forehand. It will bring me a big advantage if my forehand improves even by one per cent.

Q. Do you discuss about your problems with your father (Mr. Yu Harimoto)?

A. The person I talk to the most is naturally my father although I have had more opportunities to discuss my challenges with Mr. Tasei (Kunihito Tasei) after he was nominated as the head coach of the national team. I often talk and agree with my father that backhand strokes are more important. We are in a good relationship now though we sometimes got into tangles or had some quarrels until one or two years ago.

I think it is not so good if I cannot say what I want to say, so I feel the relationship now is just right, unless things heat up too much (lol). I think it is natural that we have dissatisfaction when I lose matches, but I want to generate a positive stream by winning matches.

The three-legged race with his father, Mr. Yu Harimoto, continues.

Q. How do you feel the distance to Chinese top players at the moment?

A. I think they always keep the momentum I experienced when I improved the most, so it is already natural for them, no longer a momentum. Looking at the fact, I realise that is just amazing.

There used to be the time when I thought “I can beat Chinese players more easily than it may seem”, but it was not easy to keep winning against them. However, I guess it is not usual to have these kinds of concerns at the age of 18, so I think it is my big advantage that I could gain such experiences in the early stage of my life.

I think I can be confident of the achievement that I could beat Chinese top players when I could catch the momentum. Shunsuke Togami, the player with the biggest momentum at the moment in Japan, has not defeated Chinese players yet.

Also, to proceed to the latter rounds, I want to beat low-ranked players without making mistakes and then Chinese top players as well. I can say I have become really strong when I can do that, so I hope I can repeat the win many times, not to be said that it happened only one time.

Q. Such a rarely acquired experience can be a big advantage for you as an athlete.

A. Now I can think of the achievement positively, but I could not take it in a constructive way one or two years ago and I always thought “something is wrong”.

However, I came to know that everybody experiences a certain period of losses even though they are in good shape when I watched other sports other than table tennis. I started to think I was lucky that I could experience this at such an early stage of my career, or I have to say I cannot continue playing without thinking that way (lol).

Looking at other sports, baseball, for example, my classmate has just started his professional career while I have already beaten some strong players internationally and secured medals at the World Championships and the Olympic Games, I want to take this unique experience positive; that is totally different to that of normal 18-year-old.

Harimoto beat Ma Long at the 2018 Japan Open. Hopefully he will threaten the king again.

Q. Is there anything you learnt from Jun Mizutani with whom you played in the men’s team event?

A. I did not lose against him in head-to-head competition as I won at the All-Japan Championships and the World Championships, but I thought he will somehow figure out a way if we compete together in the team event, and everybody thought so as well. Therefore, I have a little concern for the team event after his retirement, such as the coming World Team Table Tennis Championship Finals this year.

I respect his strength was not to be defeated by anyone other than Chinese top players, I think winning the title ten times at the All-Japan Championships is just amazing. However, our athlete types are totally different, so I hope I can become the ace in my own fashion. I think I will need the strength Mizutani possessed for that purpose, so I want to exploit what I have learnt from him by playing closely together.

Q. What do you think is the ace in your own fashion?

A. I don’t want my teammates to be assured in both good and bad ways. I want to be an ace who makes my teammates think “we want to win the team event with Harimoto” and “we want to follow Harimoto”, not the player who makes them think “everything will be all right if Harimoto is there”.

When we wish to secure gold in the team event, the team will lose even if I win only two matches, so, ideally, I hope to be an ace who can make the second and third players think “I want to work hard with Harimoto, I want to win a match”.

For that purpose, I think I have to be an ace with whom nobody can disagree in terms of competence.

Q. You earned some respect from Mr. Mizutani, but how was your impression?

A. He was very kind. However, we were both athletes when he was active, so we were competitors in singles events even though we were allies in team events; I guess it was difficult as athletes. Still, he was always kind and said to me “Let’s focus on the team event” after my losing in the singles event at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Outside T.League, we only competed together in the team event twice as representatives of the Japanese team, at the 2018 World Table Tennis Championships in Halmstad and the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. I felt very much assured when I teamed up with him at the World Championships. We lost in the quarter-final round, but I thought he would somehow work it out if we just put his name on the order sheet; I am sure everybody thought so, too. I hope to become such a reliable player.

 

What Harimoto inherited from the great ace Mizutani should never be small. (Photo: courtesy of ITTF)

Q. Regarding the selection format for the Paris Olympic Games, there will not be the nomination by the Japanese association; you have to start in the pack with other players. What are your views about this change?

A. The fact remains unchanged, players selected by the association will take part in the coming Olympics in spite of the change, so I want to gain the spot soon by winning the second and the third selection events consecutively. The contest will grow intense once the allocated points are doubled, so I hope to capture points earlier so that I can make a plan. First of all, I want to battle out this year, the first selection year, and make sure to stand at the top of the list.

I wish I could devote myself entirely to the WTT events, but the most important thing at the moment is the selection, so I will have to try hard in the events inside Japan as much as outside. Everything will be in vain if I cannot participate in the Olympic Games.

Q. Please let us know your goal in the short term, including the selection events.

A. My next tournament is the WTT Contender Zagreb in Croatia to be held from June 13th. Nobody knows at the moment if the World Table Tennis Championships Finals will be held this year, but I want to revenge a defeat of four years ago by securing a medal at least, if it is successfully held.

Also, there are selection events; I think I will have to win all the remaining tournaments. In addition, I need to win the T.League singles event in August. I will take part in the European Champions League starting from September and have many tournaments; I want to approach all with utmost effort and win every match.

Regarding the selection tournaments, I feel more pressure than the All-Japan Championships as there is a possibility for every player to be selected for the Paris Olympic Games. However, I do not feel special difficulties as all the other players are also nervous. Of course, there is pressure I cannot lose in those tournaments, but I am motivated at the same time, so I want to compete at the second event onwards in the same state of mind.

Q. On a different note, how do you look at the success of your younger sister, Miwa Harimoto?

A. She is frighteningly strong. She is rather “frightening”, not “great”. I feel something similar to myself when I started to win internationally when I was in the first grade of junior high school. One of my goals is now to avoid being overtaken by my sister (lol).

Q. What do you think of her play?

A. She plays marvelously; she plays in such a way she does not lose; her wins are not just because of momentum. She defeats not only higher-ranked players but also players of her age. She is a kind of person who always pushes herself without hesitation, she is mentally strong.

She seized a game from Mima Ito at the last selection event. Last year I thought she would only be able to aim as a national team member from the Los Angeles Olympic Games (2028), but I think she now has a chance for Paris. I hope she will be ready for Paris if possible. I have my own selection race, but I hope she will also win in a similar manner.

 

Miwa Harimoto going at such a furious speed that her brother is frightened. She continues her progress; she wins four consecutive titles at the WTT Youth Contender events. (Photo: courtesy of WTT)

Q. Last but not least, please tell us about your equipment. What do you expect from your equipment?

A. To seize the opponent’s court; it is better not to react too fast. I have gained power recently and I can control the length when I want to make it longer, so what I prioritise the most is the stability in blocking. I like the rubber with which I can easily block with my backhand.

The best rubber for blocking strokes has adequate bounce with which the ball does not drop or react too strongly. It is not affected by the opponent’s spin too much. The ball goes too far if the rubber is too hard and the ball drops if it is too soft. Any forehand stroke will find the opponent’s court with any rubber if I make it properly, but the feeling is important for the backhand.

For my backhand rubber, I had originally used TENERGY 64 and changed to TENERGY 05 as I gradually gained power. Then I changed from TENERGY 05 to DIGNICS 05 with more speed; at first a blocking stroke had been difficult with DIGNICS 05 but I became used to it.

Q. Your criterion is unique; we think there are not many top players who select their equipment based on the ease of blocking.

A. Blocking is what I can do properly if I am nervous during matches, so I can score a point with blocking. I think the points scored by attacking play are the same for every player, but one or two points with a blocking stroke is very important when you need to win when it is close.

Still, I think I have less thoughts regarding equipment compared to other players. They often try other players’ rackets, asking “please let me try yours”, but I don’t even try because I will never use them. I think it is waste of time (lol).

Q. There are many requests from fans for featuring you in the “Hey, let me try your equipment” series, but it may be difficult (lol). Thank you very much for your time over such a long period.

A. Thank you very much!

 

Harimoto has become physically bigger every time we have seen him. He made us understand his big mental growth during this interview.

He was only in the sixth grade of elementary school when Table Tennis Report covered him for the first time. We have seen his athletic progress for more than six years, but that is totally different to the course he has pursued from his viewpoint, at his age, with his body.

The tears he showed were very impressive, after his winning a title for the first time in a while at the LION Cup Top 32, by fully displaying his typical backhand skills. We felt the tears meant too much for the 18-year-old young man. As it was mentioned in this interview, there are not so many athletes who have already experienced so much at the age of 18. All the determined challenges from other players he has received since his early teenage years made him suffer but made him stronger. We even felt he had room to breathe for an 18-year-lod athlete when he talked peacefully about the matches he had lost.

New challenges will make him stronger without doubt. It is himself who is looking forward to his growth the most; his calm smile showed the fact.

 

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