“[…] and this time, Boll was the winner” – those were the words that concluded our last match analysis on the China Open match between Timo Boll and Tomokazu Harimoto. The young Japanese player had just lost against Boll in their first encounter. Just two months later, we were delighted to see them facing each other again, this time at the Men’s Singles final of the 2017 ITTF World Tour Czech Open.
In this article, we will analyze the aforementioned match, putting special attention on what has changed since the China Open and how it affected the match outcome.
Timo Boll reached the final of the 2017 Czech Open after three clean sheets and a thrilling 4-3 against the Chinese Super-League player, Xue Fei. Not such an unexpected performance considering his first seed position in the tournament and his 7th position in the World Ranking.
On the other hand, Tomokazu Harimoto won three matches on the seventh set and one other on the sixth. This being the first tournament the ITTF World Tour has played with multiple balls, the resting time was reduced during the matches, so Harimoto had a huge physical challenge considering his age and past endurance issues.
The match result: 2-4 (3-11 ,11-4 ,11-8, 9-11, 6-11, 9-11) for Harimoto. Although Boll made Harimoto think for a while that the same story would be repeated after the second and the third set, the Japanese player had a strong mental reaction and managed to score the last three sets in a row to become the youngest player ever to win an ITTF World Tour Open.
In the first set, Boll made too many mistakes when attacking with his forehand topspin, always towards Harimoto’s backhand. Those spinny balls, which worked like a charm in their previous match, hardly ever bounced on the Japanese player’s side of the table. With seven unforced forehand topspin mistakes on Boll’s side, Harimoto did not have much trouble winning this set with a 3-11 result.
The second set saw a better version of the German legend, who caused Harimoto to struggle with three service-return mistakes. Boll won the longest rallies of the set with well-placed balls, but a recurrent issue for the rest of the match started to arise: Harimoto’s aggressive backhand blocks to counteract Boll spinny attacks. Nevertheless, it was an easy set for Boll: 11-4.
With the match levelled and both players warmed up, the rally length increased and the third set had several long-lasting give-and-takes. Surprisingly, Boll managed to score most of them by staying close to the table. Finally, the longest, and probably best point of the match, gave Boll his second set after an impressive backhand counter-topspin far from the table: 11-8.
In the fourth set, Harimoto performed incredibly well when serving and returning Boll’s serves. This allowed him to attack first in most of the points and his mistake ratio was low enough to make it worth it. With the set score very tight, Harimoto used his timeout and apparently made tactic changes: attacking the first ball to Boll’s shoulder area and then quickly crossing the following ball forcing him to move. This gave him a couple of decisive points to seal the set, 9-11, making it 2-2 to level the match again.
Boll clearly realized that he had to attack earlier to stop Harimoto controlling the game. However, several mistakes and the lack of power with his backhand flick resulted in Harimoto leading 5-0. Although Boll managed to shorten the distance with some tricky points, Harimoto kept being very consistent when attacking and managed to easily win the set with several strong cross attacks that Boll could not even react to: 11-6 and 2-3 for the Japanese player.
The sixth and last set was a synthesis of the previous 40 minutes of the match: Boll winning points with smart shots and Harimoto bravely attacking with powerful and well-placed balls. Exciting finish with 9-9, a couple of long rallies won by Harimoto to set a 9-11 and the resulting 2-4 in the match score.
Let’s take a look now at the stats to get some insights into the match. First, some rough numbers:
The figures are quite tight, especially regarding mistakes. Considering how aggressively he plays, it is interesting that Harimoto only had one more winner compared to the German. Boll’s positioning and experience usually help him to anticipate his opponent’s movements, also when attacking, leading him to reach seven winners.
If we compare their previous match numbers, we can see that Harimoto’s winners and mistakes have mostly remained the same, while Boll had a 30% increase in his unforced mistakes.
Moving forward to check the rally-length variation during the match, we get the following chart:
As you can see, the average rally length of the match is 4.69, slightly higher than in their previous match. There weren’t many long rallies, though. In fact, the most repeated rally length is 3, which happened 22 times. The importance of the third ball is highlighted once again.
Taking a look at the longest rallies of the match, we can see that Harimoto controlled this aspect of the game, as he did in their last match as well.
If we draw our attention to the lower part of the rally-length chart, we realize there is a significant number of rallies with only two shots, meaning they either finished with a service return or with a mistake.
Even with similar figures, there is one subtle but very important factor to consider compared to their previous encounter: Harimoto made 5 backhand flick mistakes in 17 attempts attacking Boll’s serve in the last match, but he made none this time in 9 attempts. A huge improvement to avoid losing quick and easy points.
Let’s see now the stroke usage of each player to discover their positioning and ball placement:
Here we can see several features of both players’ skills and tactics:
- Boll trusts his forehand push to return serves and play short, in contrast to Harimoto’s backhand push, which represents more than 1/8 of all his shots.
- Harimoto made only 27 backhand topspins, while Boll made 42. Harimoto seemed to feel more comfortable attacking with his forehand topspin, while Boll’s footwork does not allow him such efforts.
- As stated before, and related to the first point, Harimoto used his backhand flick much less in comparison to his previous match against the same opponent, returning more short balls with his backhand push instead.
In relation to the shot usage, it is important to evaluate how successful the players were:
The source of mistakes is fairly equally distributed between forehand and backhand topspins and backhand blocks. While he reduced the forehand topspin mistake ratio in comparison to last time, he increased the backhand topspin mistakes. The physical aspect seemed to be much better last time, when he managed to cover the whole table with the forehand when attacking. However, this time he was forced to use the backhand more often.
Harimoto’s most notable aspect is the number of unforced mistakes with his backhand – 21 – which accounts for 70% of the total. Nevertheless, we have seen a big improvement since his last match against Boll, with him reducing the mistake ratio from 53% to 24%, mostly thanks to Boll’s deterioration when attacking towards that part of the table.
Although not represented on the previous charts, Harimoto had some trouble performing the inverted pendulum serve. He failed to serve twice in 12 attempts – something very uncommon at professional level. The following video reveals it:
The serve is indeed one of the most important shots in table tennis. Harimoto exceeded expectations by achieving a higher winning ratio than Boll:
Just to put it in perspective, the last time he won only 48% of the points when serving, whereas this time he increased that figure to almost 60%. Did he really change his playing style to increase his chances of winning … or was it just a coincidence? Let’s see:
Analyzing the serve location and trajectory, we see that Harimoto changed from serving close to the middle line to serving farther to the right of the table (Boll’s forehand). This might have forced Boll to move more when returning the serve thus needing to relocate quickly in order to return the third ball.
Another important aspect present in both matches is the number of half-long serves, which can be difficult to return low enough to prevent a powerful third ball. Although Boll performed well with the forehand push, Harimoto found it easy to attack third balls and that was how he got the attacking initiative on most occasions.
It did not take long for Harimoto to take revenge on Boll and set a precedent for their upcoming matches. Although their previous match was very tight and Boll made a huge comeback to win, Harimoto had of the margin to improve, which he did. Here we have the key aspects of the game:
- Harimoto felt comfortable playing short balls with his backhand push and attacking when suitable. In contrast to their previous match, his failure ratio was 0% on third balls with his backhand flick.
- Boll’s physical aspect was not good enough to keep up with Harimoto’s excellent ball placement, especially when the Japanese player crossed the ball towards Boll’s forehand corner.
- Compared to Boll, Harimoto was energetic throughout the whole match and did not seem to tire like last time. This allowed him to attack almost non-stop and increase the match rhythm to make 36-year-old Boll suffer.
Where is the ceiling?
Tomokazu Harimoto’s level is increasing rapidly and he is performing like a world-class player in most of his appearances. With some consistency and a bit more strength, he will be soon ready for the most-repeated question in table tennis… can he beat China?
Several facts make us think that he will: his parents are Chinese, he is the youngest ever player to win an ITTF World Tour Open and last, but not least, he has already beaten some of the best non-Chinese players: Mizutani, Boll and Samsonov.
Despite all these, the Japanese star will still find an obstacle in his path, as Boll seems to have been having a renaissance in the last few months and keeps being competitive, even against Chinese players. Let’s see if Harimoto becomes one of them…