Monday, August 20, 2018
TEXT BY DEV SUKUMAR | BADMINTONPHOTO
Kento Momota’s triumph at the TOTAL BWF World Championships 2018 was historic in every sense – it will be remembered not only for the manner in which it was achieved, but for the context in which he achieved it, and what it means for Japanese badminton.
Momota returned to international competition in July 2017 following a 15-month layoff, but it was only in February this year that he started to enter top-level fields, at events such as the Yonex Swiss Open and the Yonex German Open. Having exited in the quarter-finals of both events, there was no hint of what was to come from the talented Japanese.
It was at the Badminton Asia Championships that he offered a foretaste of what was to come. Momota scythed through the field, taking down names like Shi Yuqi, Chou Tien Chen, Lee Chong Wei and Chen Long on successive days with stunningly comfortable scores.
Momota (featured image) would suffer just one loss – to Lee in the Malaysia Open final – before turning up in Nanjing, where he had trouble in only one match. Denmark’s Anders Antonsen took a game off him before the Japanese wriggled free. From then on he was in a class by himself, cruising to the title with straight-games victories in the last three matches. In the process, Momota became the first Japanese to win the Men’s Singles title.
The final against China’s Shi Yuqi was a mismatch – for once Momota started to anticipate Shi’s most fearsome shots, the Chinese collapsed in a heap of errors. Few would have thought him capable of winning a World title when he was out of international competition through 2016 and much of 2017. A star has been reborn – and he shines more brightly than before.
As for Shi, the young Chinese decisively stepped out of the shadows of compatriots Lin Dan and Chen Long. He beat both on the way to the final – Lin in the third round and Chen in the semi-finals, to assert himself as China’s Men’s Singles spearhead.
Shi very nearly tripped up in the quarter-finals against Chinese Taipei’s Chou Tien Chen. The Taiwanese had it almost wrapped up at 15-7 in the third, but then allowed Shi to come back, blowing his chances of making history for his country.
Men’s Singles was abuzz even before the opening day, with the withdrawals of Malaysia Open champion Lee Chong Wei (Malaysia) and Korea’s Son Wan Ho. Opening day casualties included Hong Kong’s Wong Wing Ki (to Brazil’s Ygor Coelho) and Indonesia’s Jonatan Christie to Malaysia’s Liew Daren.
Both Coelho and Liew had a memorable tournament, with the Brazilian stunning India’s HS Prannoy in the second round and Liew ambushing Kidambi Srikanth in the third. The most dramatic contest of Men’s Singles happened in the quarter-finals when Liew took on Japan’s Kanta Tsuneyama. Liew was on course to win the match when he suffered an ankle strain; yet he limped on and, despite being denied in the second game, kept his nerve in a tense finish to book his place in the semi-finals against Momota. The Malaysian was, however, too battle-weary to offer much resistance to the Japanese in their last-four bout.
There were a lot of expectations around two recent World champions – the defending titlist Viktor Axelsen (Denmark) and his predecessor, Chen Long (China) – in their quarter-final. However, Axelsen could not sustain his challenge beyond the first game and Chen eased past him, 21-19 21-9, to avenge his defeat in Glasgow.
For India, the consolation was the performance of Sai Praneeth, who made the quarter-finals beating Denmark’s Hans-Kristian Vittinghus, but Momota proved too hard a nut to crack.