Kento Momota, the first Japanese to win the men’s All England Open badminton title, considers himself to be very lucky. Punished in a society, where transgressions are never really forgiven, he is indeed lucky to have got a ‘second’ chance. And, now, Momota, 24, wants to make the most of it.
Barred for visiting illegal casinos in Japan, Momota may well have felt that his life as a badminton player was over. Momota and his senior, Kenichi Tago, who had reached the 2010 All England finals, had admitted to visiting casinos, for which sportspersons are rarely, if at all, forgiven.
The scandal erupted a few months ago just before the Rio Olympics. Momota and Tago were ejected from the team.
Before his banishment, Momota had become the first Japanese to win a singles World Championship medal in Jakarta in 2015. He also won the Super Series Masters final that year. Then came the fall in 2016 and he could only watch the Rio Olympics and weep over his fate. Japan claimed a gold and a bronze at the Rio Games to finish second on the medals table behind China.
Many felt Momota’s presence could have changed the colour of the medal. But, for Japan, discipline was more important.
Momota’s talent was noticed even as a junior. Born in Kagawa Prefecture, he won his first title at the All Japan Elementary School Championships. Momota, who was in Grade 6, emerged the boys’ champion. In Junior High School in Fukuoka, he again won a similar tournament at the All Japan Junior High School Championships. Graduating from junior high school, Momota studied at the Fukuoka High School. He was on a roll till it hit the roadblock in 2016.
Around mid-2017, the Nippon Badminton Federation itself sort of ‘gambled’ and allowed Momota get back to badminton in Japan and gave him a chance to turn a new leaf.
He slowly made his way up and made to the Asian Games team, winning a gold, but lost in singles to Indonesia’s Anthony Sinisuka Ginting in the round of 16.
However, around the time of the World Championships in Nanjing, Momota was climbing up the world rankings. He sliced through the opposition, including the then All England champion, Shi Yuqi, to win the gold. Momota’s rehabilitation was working.
Through 2018 and 2019, he has been in tremendous form. In 2018 he won a whole lot of BWF World Tour events — the Indonesia Open, the Japan Open, Denmark Open, China Open and German Open. He lost the finals in Malaysia (to Lee Chong Wei), China Open Super 1000 (to Ginting), Tour finals (to Shi Yuqi) and Indonesia Masters (Anders Antonsen). And, now, in Birmingham, he simply ran through the opposition, once again, including India’s Kidambi Srikanth and the most formidable European Viktor Axelsen in the finals.
“I am lucky that Olympics is coming to Tokyo and I have a chance,” he said.
“The 2020 Olympic (qualifying) race begins in May and it gives me a lot of confidence that I was able to win the pre-Olympic event that everyone wanted to win. But the battle starts from here. I want to work hard to raise my level.”
“Winning this tournament has been a childhood dream and this is a really big moment in my life, and gives me a lot of confidence,” said Momota.
The face, even through sweat, is radiant. The darkness has given way to a new light and Kento Momota wants to make the most of it.