The Rise and Future of a Prodigy: Harimoto Tomokazu

By Ray Huang | Feb. 12, 2018, 10:57 p.m. (ET)

A lightning fast backhand is quickly followed up with a thunder-clapping cho, and another age record has been broken. Harimoto Tomokazu burst onto the international scene at eleven years of age when he beat Omar Assar and Jens Lundqvist at the Safir Open, and he has continued to redefine what was originally thought possible.

Born to two former Chinese national team members on June 27, 2003, Harimoto Tomokazu began playing at the age of 2. His mother, Zhang Ling, competed in the 1995 World Championship, while his father, Yu Harimoto, was a Chinese youth national player. Showing early signs of promise, Harimoto finished fourth in an under 8 competition at the mere age of three years and four months.

His father has been his coach from the beginning, and oftentimes, his father still coaches Harimoto in major competitions. Yu’s calm demeanor balances out Harimoto’s intensity, keeping Harimoto focused during competition. Due to his smaller size and inadequate brute power, Harimoto plays close to the table and is known for his rapid backhands and forehand counters, the polar opposite of Jun Mizutani’s long-distance loops and passive blocks. Mizutani represents the hurdle which Harimoto must surpass to become the best player in Japan.

The first international competition that Harimoto attended was the Safir Open, where he reached the finals. Many speculated that his victories were a fluke, but Harimoto silenced the critics when he went on to reach the quarterfinals of the 2016 ITTF Slovenia Open at just 12 years of age. In addition, Harimoto had already possessed a myriad of domestic titles under his belt, including All Japan Championship titles for multiple age divisions.

2016 saw Harimoto stun the world when he became the youngest ever World Junior Champion, claiming the title at just 13 years of age. This event has been a stepping stone for many of the world's great senior players.

In 2017, Harimoto reached the top 8 at the WTTC in addition to becoming the champion of the Czech Open. And in January of 2018, he defeated compatriot Jun Mizutani, becoming the Japanese Men’s Singles Champion. Harimoto gave Mizutani little time to react, sticking close to the table while Mizutani backed away, consistently putting Mizutani on the defense. After the game, Mizutani remarked that Harimoto’s swift shots were superior to his outdated long distance counter-loops. Taking all these titles and just 14 years of age, Harimoto is an undeniable prodigy.

While Harimoto’s achievements are often credited to his innovative play style and a superior sense of touch, his success is also due to his attitude on the table. While some people may find his chos aggravating, his shouts undeniably showcase his desire to win. Unlike many of his competitors, Harimoto isn’t affected by his nerves; he is impervious to the fear of losing that plagues so many. In this regard, Harimoto’s attitude bears an uncanny resemblance to that of Zhang Jike's youth.

Now for the question that everyone has been asking: Can Harimoto end the Chinese dominance? Ma Long himself admitted that when he was 12 years old, he was not nearly as good as Harimoto. Just two months ago, at the Swedish Open, Xu Xin narrowly escaped the fiery youngster, winning 9-11 in the seventh. If Harimoto is at the level of Xu Xin at just 13 years of age, China could be in grave danger. However, similar to his match with Mizutani, Harimoto was able to exploit Xu Xin’s outdated play style. Against other Chinese players such as Ma Long and Fan Zhendong, Harimoto is still outclassed by a significant amount. And one must not forget that China’s pool of young players is wide and deep, while Japan’s sole hope is Harimoto.

It is still too soon to tell, with Harimoto still 14 years old. His future is murky and hazy; he could become the Olympic champion one day, or he could fade into oblivion like so many child stars, particularly many promising talents from Japan who have tried and failed to ascend to the top. But for now, Harimoto Tomokazu shows no signs of stopping, with his sights set on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Perhaps the next Olympic final won’t be China v. China after all.