Momota – badminton no 1 bounces back from crash

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
In this file photo taken on July 28, 2021 Japan's Kento Momota hits a shot to South Korea's Heo Kwang-hee in their men's singles badminton group stage match during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. AFP

Kento Momota suffered a career-threatening car crash and then flopped at the Tokyo Olympics, but the Japanese badminton star can end a turbulent two years on a high at this week’s BWF World Tour Finals.

The world number one won the Indonesia Masters earlier this month – his first international title since being badly injured in the January 2020 accident – but then endured a shock defeat in the last 16 at last week’s Indonesia Open.

It was typical of the rollercoaster journey that the 27-year-old has been on since he was almost forced to retire after fracturing his eye socket in the car crash.

Momota said that his “spirit was almost broken” as he tried to recover from the accident – hours after he won the Malaysia Masters – which killed the driver of the vehicle taking him to Kuala Lumpur airport.

He suffered double vision and needed surgery on a bone near his eye that delayed his comeback, leaving him fearing his career was over.

“I thought about it. How long will it take?” he said in March last year, when asked if he was worried he might never play again.

Momota made a full recovery and headed into the Tokyo Games on home soil in July this year as the favourite to win gold.

But his Olympic dream turned into a nightmare when he was eliminated in the group stage. Momota admitted his killer instinct had deserted him and blamed his own “weakness” for the shock exit.

“Previously, when a match went like this, I would be able to recover and think clearly,” said a visibly stunned Momota.

Gambling ban

It was the latest unhappy chapter in his Olympic career, following a dramatic fall from grace just months before the 2016 Rio Games.

He admitted gambling in an illegal casino with a fellow player in April 2016, and was kicked off Japan’s Olympic team and banned from competition indefinitely.

He returned a year later and set about making up for lost time, beating then-Olympic champion Chen Long for the Asian title in April 2018 before working his way back up the rankings.

His comeback reached a climax in 2019 when he won a record-breaking 11 titles, including the World Championships, Asia Championships and All England Open.

The left-hander lost just six of the 73 matches he played that year and admitted he had surprised even himself with his blistering form.

“I feel like I am not yet a legendary player but I will work hard in order to play well in future tournaments,” he said.

But then came the accident and a pandemic that forced the cancellation of badminton tournaments all over the world.

Momota played his first match in almost a year at Japan’s national championships in Tokyo last December, starting tentatively before beating Kanta Tsuneyama in the final.

His hopes of returning to international competition were then dashed when he tested positive for coronavirus at the airport in January as the Japan team was about to depart for the Thailand Open.

He eventually resumed international play at the All England Open in March, but lost in the quarter-finals.

His form since his Tokyo Games heartbreak has been mixed.

He lost to new Olympic champion Viktor Axelsen in the final of the Denmark Open in October, then retired injured in the semi-finals of the French Open, before finally making the breakthrough at the Indonesia Masters.

While his name Kento is reportedly a tribute to Superman’s alter ego Clark Kent, Momota has shown he is only human.

Now he’s hoping he can be the “Man of Steel” by capping off his latest comeback with victory at the Tour Finals in Bali.