The 2017 ITTF World Tour Platinum China Open will always be remembered because of the “Chinese issue”. However, the event of not having any Chinese player competing since the Round of 16 brought us an exciting and totally unpredictable tournament.
It was in the semi-finals when one of the most anticipated matches happened. Tomokazu Harimoto, the Japanese sensation, faced Timo Boll, who was World Number 1 when his opponent was born, 13 years ago. A difficult match for both of them, as it was their first official encounter so it was hard to place bets on who’d win.
In this article, we will analyze the match as usual, revealing the numbers behind it, showing some graphs and charts, and casting some light on the tactics Timo used to defeat the player of the moment.
The result: 1-4 (11-6, 9-11, 8-11, 10-12, 5-11) for Timo Boll would have you believe it was an easy match. However, it did not develop in such a way, as Harimoto had many chances to win throughout the game.
The Japanese player started the match with his typical aggressive style, taking the initiative with the backhand and finishing with strong forehand topspins. Boll seemed to have trouble adapting to that game speed and made five unforced mistakes. Moreover, he failed to return three serves, something totally uncommon for him. A result of 11-6 for the Japanese player allowed him to start leading the match.
The second set continued in a similar fashion: Harimoto attacking and winning points with well-placed forehand topspins. However, Boll managed to find confidence with very spinny first-attacking balls that completely disturbed Harimoto, who seemed not to be used to them. The youngster made seven unforced mistakes that allowed Boll, even with three more service return failures, to take the second set 9-11 and tie the match.
A leading 5-1 for Harimoto in the third set ended up being turned around by his opponent forcing Harimoto to use his timeout when the score reached 6-5. However, it did not work much, as Boll found a way to make Harimoto move and his footwork was not good enough to reach the balls at the right moment. Furthermore, Boll’s variation on his service provoked four return mistakes from Harimoto and he recorded an 8-11 to lead the match 1-2.
The fourth set of the match definitely taught Harimoto a few useful things for the rest of his career. He lost the set after being 8-1 up and suffered the German “tornado” who got the initiative in most of the points and did not let him react at all. Even with 10-8 for Harimoto, Boll kept attacking and the Japanese failed to block two spinny topspins. In the end, it was 10-12 for Boll, who narrowly avoided a 2-2 in the set score to reach 1-3 instead.
The fifth and last set showed us an overwhelmed Harimoto who was physically and mentally consumed by a constant and precise Boll. The young Japanese player gambled with several difficult shots – especially serve returns – most of which failed and gave a 2-6 advantage to his opponent. As had happened during the rest of the match, Boll kept playing smart when pushing and waiting for the most appropriate ball to attack. An ending 5-11 finished the match and Timo Boll booked a slot in the final where he would play against his mate, Ovtcharov.
The match highlights can be watched at the official ITTF Youtube channel here:
Let’s begin with some rough numbers:
Although the match result was 1-4, Boll only won 8 points more than Harimoto. Moreover, the German player made much more forced mistakes than Harimoto who, despite being 13 years old, hit the ball stronger than Boll. However, this fact made him commit more unforced errors: 8. Exactly the total points difference they had.
The way that Harimoto plays affected the length of the points and therefore the match. If we check the rally length evolution of the match, we have:
As can be seen, the average hits per point is close to 4. Just as a reference, Boll had a rally length average of 5.4 in his match against Ovtcharov which we analyzed some time ago. It is also remarkable the amount of points that had only two hits – 20 – which shows the impact of the serve during the match, with many return mistakes from both of the players.
Now let’s see whether the rally length went in favour of either of the players by checking the longest rallies of the match:
It is obvious that Harimoto controlled most of the longest rallies of the match, which usually make Boll suffer, especially when he is forced to step back farther from the table.
If we take a look at the shot usage during the match…
Both players have quite a different playing style which is proved on these pie charts. While Boll sought his forehand topspin as much as possible, Harimoto trusted his backhand flick to attack short balls. On the other hand, Boll felt comfortable pushing with his forehand, which became the second most used shot.
Compared to previous analysis we have made, the amount of forehand flicks that these two players performed is significantly higher: 22 between both of them. For example, Ma Long and Fan Zhendong only initiated the attack with a forehand flick three times in the 2017 WTTC Final.
Nonetheless, the shot usage stats do not depict how successful the players were. Let’s see it with the following charts:
In general terms, Harimoto had a fair distribution of unforced mistakes on all the strokes. The way Boll attacked the ball with a lot of spin and placement variation provoked most of those mistakes. In order to stop Boll from attacking, he forced too much with the backhand flick, making more mistakes than usual.
As usual, his winning shots came mostly from forehand and backhand topspins, although the error ratio is quite high on both (32.4% and 20%). But, the worst performing stroke was the backhand block, where he made 9 mistakes in 17 attempts.
Timo Boll was generally more accurate. The winners came mostly from forehand topspins, while the majority of mistakes happened when blocking. However, most of them were forced errors. It is outstanding that he had about the same amount of forehand topspins as forehand pushes on the table, which denotes how well placed Timo is when playing short, covering the whole table with his forehand.
In fact, this last aspect of the game determined most of the match’s outcome, as it allowed Timo to attack with a higher probability of success. The following chart proves it:
As we can see, Harimoto won exactly 50% of the points when attacking the first ball. That would seem like a fair number if Boll’s figures were not so good. He achieved 62.16% of the points when he managed to flick or hit the ball with a topspin before Harimoto.
Was Boll repetitive with his first attacks placement? Let’s analyze it:
The first remarkable thing is that he only made 7 mistakes. Apart from that, he sought Harimoto’s backhand more, probably after noticing his weakness when blocking with it.
All in all, Harimoto was good enough, considering the experience and level of his opponent. However, some aspects of the game were controlled by Boll and ended up making the difference:
- Harimoto was not consistent enough when attacking as he made too many mistakes, particularly with the backhand flick.
- Boll felt comfortable pushing short balls and then attacking with very spinny balls, especially to the backhand side of the table – that triggered many mistakes on Harimoto’s backhand.
- Long rallies, where Boll would have suffered more, did not happen often, as the rally length was quite short during the whole match. The spin variation and mistake ratio were continually in Boll’s favour.
- Boll’s comeback in the fourth set severely affected Harimoto’s mood. He surrended in the last set, giving up the fight for the match. Perhaps lack of experience, physical weakness, and mental fatigue were the root cause of it.
Timo Boll is one of the best players in history. At 36 years old, he is still competing at the highest level. In fact, this year he won the German League with Borussia Düsseldorf, reaching also the Champions League final and the 2017 WTTC Men’s Singles quarter-finals.
It was precisely at that stage when Harimoto was knocked out too. While Boll is already thinking about retiring, Harimoto is starting to build a successful future. The latter could at some point achieve what the German never did: the World Champion Title. We will have to wait and see! In the meanwhile, we can only compare them at the table, and this time, Boll was the winner.
* Cover photo: ITTF