The story of the hare and tortoise race that all of us have heard since childhood has a very simplistic explanation – slow and steady wins the race. But the slow is probably there only for alliteration because it is the steady conviction in one’s ability that matters in the final analysis.
If you have any doubt, ask the Kidambi Srikanths and Viktor Axelsens how it feels to race to 21 points over three games against a certain Kento Momota.
The 24-year-old Japanese has been on a roll in the last year and half, winning every major title including the Asian and world championship. On Sunday, he became the first Japanese men’s singles player to win the All England title with his 10th consecutive win over Axelsen.
The former world number one Dane brought out his entire heavy artillery of booming smashes and fast-paced attack but could overpower his opponent only in one game before going down 21-11, 15-21, 21-15 in an hour and 21 minutes.
This has been pattern of most Momota victories ever since he returned from the one-year suspension for gambling in a casino.
His opponents tend to come out all guns blazing to gain initial advantage against arguably the best player on the circuit currently, only to be sucked into a honey trap of long rallies and percentage play before they break down mentally and physically. Momota then simply tightens the noose and forces them into abject surrender.
Mind you, Momota isn’t a retriever who cannot bulldoze opponents with attacking play. He poses almost all the strokes in his repertoire to win matches on a canter, but prefers to pace himself in a way that his opponents begin to unravel long before the finish line.
If women’s world number one Tai Tzu Ying mesmerises you with the variety of her strokes and the audacity with which she plays them, Momota makes you fall in love with the control that he has at the net. He moves around his opponent all across the court before pouncing at the openings with what look like the simplest of winners.
And anyone who has played competitive sports at any level will tell you that to achieve this zen-like approach isn’t easy.
It’s definitely not just about skills, which Momota possesses in abundance. But so do Srikanth, Axelsen and everyone in the top-10 or 20 in the world rankings. It’s about how you utilise these skills in the most simple but effective manner that separates the legends from other champions. And in this regard, Momota is showing why he is the heir apparent to his childhood idol Lin Dan.
It’s probably fitting that there are a lot of similarities in way the Chinese superstar played at his peak and how Momota goes about his job now. Both have build their game around a strong foundation of defensive skills, brilliant court coverage, ability to peg away at every shuttle and force their opponents to work extra hard to win points. And they make playing badminton look so simple, that anyone can fall in love with the game.
Rise, fall and rise again
That Momota was marked for a stellar badminton career was never in doubt. The real question, since he announced his arrival by becoming the first Japanese men’s singles player to win the BWF World junior title in 2012, was how big a star could he be.
He showed his class by helping Japan conquer the Thomas Cup in 2014 and then became the country’s first men’s singles world championship medallist. He also rose to the world number two ranking but never looked as intimidating as he is now.
Just out of his teens then, he was more aggressive, could play to the gallery at times and wanted to enjoy the rich life of a upcoming superstar. And just when it looked like his career would move into another gear, he was banned by the national federation for gambling in a casino. A few days later, photos of Momota getting intimate with a hostess in a KTV Lounge were printed by a Japanese magazine.
Japan’s long-serving national coach and five time world champion Park Joo Bong had then told Strait Times what he felt was missing in Momota. “If you only have skills and good badminton, I don’t think you can be a champion. Discipline, if it’s not enough, then you cannot be world champion.
“Momota will be world No 1 one day, but he has to improve and change his attitude. He has to change. [To be an] Olympic champion, a world champion is not easy. If he cannot change, I don’t think so,” the South Korean was quoted as saying.
And change is what Momota has managed fantastically well. During the one year suspension period, the 24-year-old worked extremely hard on his physical conditioning. It now shows in the manner he moves on the court and is always reaching the shuttle that split second earlier to control the rallies. During that period, he also worked with upcoming shuttlers, helping them improve their game and in the bargain got a better understanding of himself and his own game.
It was not an easy path for him after Japan asked Badminton World Federation to remove him from the ranking list during the suspension period. He had to start from scratch, going to lower rung tournaments across the world to earn ranking points and probably play in empty halls and far from ideal court conditions.
But he strung together an unbeaten run of 39 matches from July 2017 to February 2018 and earned enough ranking points to make it to major tournaments thereafter. He lost just eight matches in 2018 and has won plaudits from coach Joo Bong for his work ethics since returning to the national team.
The change in approach was visible in the very first domestic tournament Momota played after the ban and said as much, “I’m just very happy to join in a competition. Now I just want to be the right person on and off court. So I focus on being a good player with a good attitude and respect for opponents, and on playing one rally at a time, always doing my best. I hope I can be a good person. Someday, I want to be a player who people cheer for,” badminton website badzine.com quoted him as saying.
By holding the Asian and world title along with the Indonesia Open and All England Open – two of the three Super 1000 events – and reaching the final of the China Super 1000 and BWF World Tour Finals in the last 12 months, Momota has already ensured that fans are swarming the stadiums to cheer for him.
His real focus now is to become Japan’s first men’s singles Olympics medallist in Tokyo next year, having missed the Rio Games due to suspension. A title in Tokyo would definitely see his popularity skyrocket in Japan.
But the most intimidating part for his opponents is that Momota is just 24. And with his newfound maturity and ever expanding skill sets, the Japanese is here to stay for many more years.