Feature | Table Tennis

Japanese prodigy Tomokazu Harimoto sets his sights on the top

15-year-old Youth Olympic Games silver medallist Harimoto hopes to emulate his hero Yuzuru Hanyu after taking the table tennis world by storm.

Tomokazu Harimoto has been called many things...

The Japanese prodigy has even been dubbed the Mozart of table tennis.

And while most 15-year-olds are worrying about school exams, Harimoto has medals at the ITTF World Championships in Budapest and Tokyo 2020 on his mind.

Ranked four in the world, the Japanese youngster has already beaten some of the best players on the planet.

But the road to the very top is far from smooth, as he will know from following the exploits of his hero, Yuzuru Hanyu.

When asked by the ITTF, who his favourite athlete was, he replied: "Yuzuru Hanyu."

Harimoto was even born in Sendai, the same place as the figure skating superstar.

"I will do my best to become world number one, world champion, and Olympic champion. I hope table tennis fans support me on my path towards these aims." - Tomokazu Harimoto speaking to ITTF

And like many Japanese teenagers he is a big fan of the Detective Conan anime series.

Japanese comedy duo Ginshari pose with a Detective Conan doll at the 'Detective Conan Science Investigation' exhibition in Tokyo in April 2018

Harimoto also lists karaoke as his main hobby saying, "I simply like singing and it's good for relieving stress."

Tomokazu Harimoto practises in Budapest ahead of the World Table Tennis Championships

Making the big time

Harimoto has had plenty of emotions to deal with in his young career.

He made history at the Czech Open in August 2017, becoming the youngest ever winner of an ITTF World Tour event aged 14 years and 61 days.

More records fell in 2018 as he beat Rio 2016 singles bronze medallist Jun Mizutani to become Japan's youngest national champion.

At the Asian Cup in April, the upstart defeated world number one Fan Zhendong - a man he has previously called his "idol" - in the group stages before going out in the quarter-finals.

But he really shook up the world two months later at the Japan Open in Kitakyushu.

Harimoto stunned reigning Olympic singles champion Ma Long in six games to reach the semi-finals.

He then won against Ma's victim in the Rio final, London 2012 champion Zhang Jike, to claim a huge victory on home soil.

After turning 15, Harimoto went to the Youth Olympic Games as one of the favourites for gold.

But he had to settle for silver in Buenos Aires as he went down 4-1 in the final to China's Wang Chuqin.

Harimoto on YOG experience: "Lessons to be learned"

Japanese table tennis player Tomokazu Harimoto says he is determined to tur...

It did not get him down. In December, Harimoto scored the biggest victory of his career so far in Incheon, South Korea.

After brushing aside Brazil's Hugo Calderano in the semi-finals of the World Tour Grand Finals, he beat Lin Gaoyuan 4-1 to claim the title aged 15 years and 172 days.

As well as becoming the youngest Grand Finals singles champion in history, Harimoto also rose to number three in the world.

Harimoto's historic triumph in Korea

Japan's 15-year-old sensation Tomokazu Harimoto won the ITTF World Tour Gra...

The merit of that win was underlined in January when Lin beat YOG champion Wang to take the Hungarian Open and move back above the Japanese in the world rankings.

The year so far

Harimoto missed the opening World Tour event of the year in Budapest as he defended his Japanese singles title.

He was beaten in the semi-finals by Yuya Oshima as Mizutani clinched his tenth national title.

But he did enjoy success in Osaka as he took the men's doubles crown with Yuto Kizukuri, and reached the final of the mixed doubles with Miyu Nagasaki.

His 2019 World Tour debut came in the Qatar Open at the end of March.

The tournament in Doha was the first of six World Tour Platinum competitions in 2019, and Harimoto reached the quarter-finals before surprisingly going out to Sweden's Mattias Falck.

A week later, he was in action again at the Asian Cup on home soil in Yokohama.

He finished second in his round-robin group, going down 3-1 to Ma Long who had returned to form with victory in Qatar.

That was enough to take him through to the quarter-finals where he beat Korea's world number six Sangsu Lee 4-1.

But Harimoto, who was suffering with a sore finger, would progress no further as Fan overpowered him 4-1 in the semi-finals before defeating Ma in the final.

The worlds in Budapest did not go as planned as the fourth seed lost to Korea's Jaehyun An 4-2 in the round of 16.

Tomokazu Harimoto signs autographs after his quarter-final defeat to Xin Xu at the 2017 World Championships in Dusseldorf

Introducing Harimoto Mk II

Meanwhile, little sister Miwa is making waves in the cadet ranks.

Miwa Harimoto playing in the junior singles at the All Japan Table Tennis Championships in Osaka in January 2019

Weeks after Tomokazu's Japan Open success, 10-year-old Harimoto Jr won the mini-cadet (under-12) singles title at the China Junior and Cadet Open in Taicang.

In February this year, she reached the final of the Czech Open cadet competition for under-15s.

Later that month, Miwa performed superbly at the Swedish Open in Orebro.

She made the quarter-finals of the under-18 juniors event, the semi-finals of the cadets, and claimed the mini-cadets title by beating top seed Anna Hursey of Wales in straight games.

The Harimoto success story is perhaps no great surprise as their parents - Zhang Yu and Zhang Ling - both represented China at the World Table Tennis Championships.

Tomokazu Harimoto cheering on sister Miwa at the All Japan Championships with father Yu and mother Rin

Zhang Yu moved to Japan in 1998 as a coach and settled in Sendai where Tomokazu, originally named Zhang Zhihe, was born.

The family became Japanese citizens in 2014, changing their surnames to Harimoto.

And here are the two prodigies having fun practising together last year.

While Tokyo 2020 comes too soon for her, Miwa will be 16 when Paris 2024 comes around.

Perhaps we will see the Harimoto siblings in the mixed doubles with both challenging for singles medals in France.