Momota Sets the Pace, but Speedbreakers Lurk

Kento Momota.

When Kento Momota takes the court for his first round match at the Badminton Asia Championships in Wuhan next week, it will be a return, in a sense, to where the glittering second chapter in his career started.

And after some bumps in December and January, the Japanese has re-established himself as the player to beat as three major events draw close – the Sudirman Cup, where he will lead Japan’s hunt for its first title; the World Championships 2019, which he will be defending; and Tokyo 2020, where he will attempt to do what no Japanese singles shuttler has done – win an Olympic gold.

His three titles this year, out of four finals, indicate that he has addressed some of his vulnerabilities that were seen at the end of last year and early this year. His losses to Son Wan Ho, Shi Yuqi, Kenta Nishimoto and Anders Antonsen meant that he had gone four events without a title, and his approach at the All England and the Singapore Open showed his willingness and ability to adapt tactically.

Singapore, for instance, saw a more urgent Momota, who wasn’t sitting back on the strength of his defence, but actively setting the narrative. This was a return to his approach when he was on his stellar run last year, before he adopted a more cautious tone at the end of the year, one that didn’t fetch him expected rewards.

What gives Momota the edge is his confidence to stay the course, physically and mentally, even when things aren’t going his way. In the All England final against Viktor Axelsen, for instance, Momota was blown away by the Dane’s attack in the second game and early in the third, but he hung on in the rallies and bided his time, certain that the Dane’s attack couldn’t last its punishing pace. When the tiny gaps appeared, he was on to them in a flash – picking off net winners and frustrating his opponent, who had had the better of their exchanges until then.

Axelsen matched Momota for most of the match before his game slipped at the end in the All England final.

The Singapore Open semifinal was just as rivetting. Axelsen bludgeoned anything that was lifted to his forehand, but Momota persisted with this line until he was down in the dumps at 6-16.

The Japanese then switched his line, probing the deep corner on Axelsen’s backhand, and that brought him rewards. The dam burst, with Momota running away with a sequence of 15 out of the next 17 points. Late in the game, Momota once again lifted to Axelsen’s forehand and the Dane sent another hammer-blow crosscourt, but this time the Japanese was waiting for precisely that shot. The set-up had worked to perfection.

Momota later said a single probing clear to Axelsen’s deep backhand had suddenly opened up the possibilities.

“I’d given up on the game,” Momota said. “I caught him with one clear and that point changed the momentum of the match. I was a bit surprised by his reaction – he appeared uncertain.”

In the final, against Anthony Ginting – the only player to have twice beaten him last year – he found himself on the backfoot fending off Ginting’s electric pace, but bided his time with his own error-free game until Ginting ran out of steam.

At the moment, the world No.1 has many things going for him. But the pack snapping at his heels isn’t too far behind, and he will constantly need to reinvent his game to stay ahead. He isn’t yet able to dominate the opposition in the manner of a Lin Dan or a Lee Chong Wei at their best, for many of his titles have been earned from hard-fought battles.

The coming months will show whether the chasing pack can pin him down, or if he can continue to build on his considerable abilities to stay ahead.

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