In the realm of sports, it is hard to dispute that it has evolved from being a pure, healthy and virtuous form of competition between athletes to becoming a main source of entertainment for spectators.
Consequently, these athletes, especially those who have achieved pre-eminence in their respective sports, represent something bigger than themselves in the eyes of the public.
Athletes are not only brand ambassadors, but also role models for children and aspiring youths, and as such, they are expected to be irreproachable and uphold the highest values.
Therefore, it is perhaps understandable that disgraced athletes, whether they are caught cheating by their sporting authorities or worse, convicted of criminal activity in the court of law, can find it hard to regain popularity, or even re-enter their respective sporting arenas in some cases, under the backdrop of such intense public scrutiny.
There are no lack of stories of famous athletes and icons who have gone from hero to zero in the blink of an eye – just take a look at Lance Armstrong, Oscar Pistorius and Adam Johnson – among a host of others given to misdeamour.
But to go from hero to zero and back to hero again? It is almost unfathomable, but not impossible.
One such comeback story is that of Kento Momota’s resurgence on the badminton court; a remarkably tumultuous journey that has seen him become the first male Japanese to reach the World No.1 ranking in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) standings and win the prestigious All England Open Badminton Championships in March 2019, all whilst returning from an indefinite ban due to illegal gambling convictions.
The 24-year-old’s stunning career has seen its ups and downs and he is by no chance a ruse.
All the signs were pointing towards a promising career for the Japanese even in his early days.
Born in Mitoyo City, Kagawa Prefecture in 1994, Kento Momota’s raw talent in the racket sport was quickly apparent as he won both the All Japan Elementary School and Junior High School Championships.
Following his junior high graduation and subsequent enrollment in Fukuoka High School, he began participating in bigger competitions such as the local National Championships and the World Junior Championships as a 17-year-old prodigy in 2011.
His admirable placings in both these competitions (runner-up to Kenichi Tago – the then leading national professional badminton player, and a semi-final berth in the World Juniors respectively) led the Nippon Badminton Association to offer him a place in the national team.
His exponential growth never seemed to wane, as he snapped up both boy singles’ gold medals in the 2012 Asian Junior and World Junior Championships, tournaments which he had faltered at the semi stage just a year ago.
Having truly announced himself globally as the latest badminton prodigy, he continued to trail blaze in the following years, winning all his matches in the 2014 Thomas Cup as the Japan men’s team captured its first championship in this world men’s team event.
Following this, he won the men’s singles title at the Singapore Open, becoming the youngest male player to win a World Tour title (then called Super Series), a record that still holds today. In 2015, he became the first male Japanese player to win a medal at the Badminton World Federation (BWF) World Championships, attaining the Bronze medal as he lost out to eventual champion, Chen Long.
On the back of this imperious ascendancy, he was tipped to be one of the firm favorites for a medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics, until the dice rolled out of his favour.
On April 8, 2016, Kento Momota and his teammate, Kenichi Tago sat gravely in front of the Japanese media in a press conference where the latter confessed to bringing Momota on illegal casino gambling sessions spanning between 2014 and 2015. It was a grave sin, betraying the hopes of the nation in such a conservative country.
Despite the pleading of a tearful Tago for leniency and mercy for the young Momota, both players were slapped with an indefinite ban by their national badminton association, dashing the Olympic dreams of then World No. 2 Momota, just four months prior to the Olympics.
Kento Momota cleaned up his act during the ban and continued to train diligently by himself and under his local club NTT East. Finally, after more than a year in May 2017, the Nippon Badminton Association lifted its ban on Momota. In the same month, a reborn Kento Momota rejoiced as he triumphed in the National ranking circuit. However, one year of no international exposure meant there was lots of rustiness to shake off, and a world ranking to climb as he was just reinstated into BWF’s world ranking system.
After the endless grind of qualifying matches for international competitions and a series of small international wins in 2017, Momota finally climbed back onto the big stage in 2018, sweeping both the men’s single titles at the Asian Championships as well as the World Championships, both maiden wins for Momota.
Most recently, his capture of the All England Open has firmly put him back into the embrace of the badminton world and his home nation once again.
His newfound maturity has also translated into his game. The explosive footwork and unpredictability which were the unmistakable characteristics of a then prodigious 21-year-old still remains, but he has removed the inconsistency and somewhat naive constant aggressiveness which dominated his early days.
The Momota now sports far more consistent game control and management, willing to engage in long rallies to tire opponents and relies as much on this to win games as he did on his aggressive smashes previously.
There seems to be no stopping the resurgent Momota and the following statistics speak for themselves.
Below is a summary of Momota’s head-to-head record with the other top five ranked players in the world as well as the living legends that are Malaysia’s Lee Chong Wei and China’s Lin Dan.
|World Ranking (No.)||Player
(Win – Loss)
|2||Shi Yuqi (China)||3-1|
|3||Chou Tien Chen (Chinese Taipei)||9-2|
|4||Viktor Axelsen (Denmark)||11-2|
|5||Chen Long (China)||3-5|
|16||Lin Dan (China)||3-1|
|44||Lee Chong Wei (Malaysia)||2-2|
Evident from the table above, Momota only has a single negative record against Chen Long of China, boasting a positive record against Lin Dan and currently tying with Lee Chong Wei.
This is no small feat given that Momota was just a teenager when he was pitted against these world champions in their prime, with the majority of matches against them occurring before his ban in 2015 (Momota was only 21 then).
Against world beaters of his age group, Momota holds an unprecedented head-to-head record, with the most glaring one a 11:2 win-loss ratio against Danish 25-year-old, Viktor Axelsen.
As the self-styled “Japanese Samurai” of badminton continues to relentlessly smash his way to a series of titles, he is a definite favourite for next year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo, especially with the declining Lin Dan and Lee Chong Wei dwindling far into their twilight years.
To win the men’s singles gold medal at the 2020 Summer Olympics, and to do so in his home country would be icing on the cake to cap off an astounding career comeback, cementing his place in badminton folklore and exonerating himself in the eyes of the Japanese people.
With endless determination and complete focus on the courts now, the sky is indeed the limit for a reborn and unrivaled Kento Momota, who could possibly surpass Lin Dan’s legacy on the badminton court.Leave a comment