Japan’s hugely talented, but mutinous, prodigal son, Kento Momota, extracted full retribution for an enforced year in the wilderness by lifting the Badminton Asia men’s singles crown on Sunday at the expense of the apparently-unbeatable-in-China defending champion Chen Long by an almost unbelievable 21-17, 21-13 scoreline.
Momota had been suspended for 12 months in April 2016 by his country’s badminton association for indiscipline and gambling at a casino in contravention of the laid-down rules; and it took him nearly a year to recoup the circuit points that would allow him to compete in top-level tournaments where entry is only secured by rankings, with the draws being limited to 32 slots. In Wuhan, he finally rose to his full stature by eliminating one of the three players (the other two being Lin Dan and Lee Chong Wei) who have dominated men’s world badminton for the past decade.
There were no such shocks in the women’s singles division, which saw 23-year-old World No 1, Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei, duly retain the gold medal she had won last year at the same venue, the Wuhan Sports Centre, with a none-too-convincing 21-19, 22-20 victory over sixth-seeded Chinese youngster Chen Yufei. Although she was not at her best throughout the competition, Tai had sufficient guile and strength of temperament to hold on when it came to crunch situations, and won the crown without dropping a game.
“Today, I made several errors,” the Taiwanese ace said later, through the services of an interpreter. “I just did not have the control in the beginning, and had to struggle all through. Yufei has progressed very quickly, and she will continue to improve. Today, we had some long rallies and there wasn’t much different between the two of us. I had to remind myself to stay consistent. She gave me a lot of trouble, as she is one of the most athletic players in the world, and can cover the court well.”
The host nation had four representatives in the finals, and though it ended up on the losing side in both the stellar singles events, it had the consolation of winning two of the three doubles titles at stake.
The top-seeded pair of Li Junhui and Liu Yuchen held on to the men’s doubles title they had won in 2017, with a hard-fought 11-21, 21-10, 21-13 triumph over the Japanese combination of Takeshi Kamura and Keigo Sonoda, seeded third in the event. Although the Chinese pair started slowly in the face of an initial Japanese blitzkrieg, their superiority was never in doubt.
There appeared to be a change of guard in the mixed doubles, with the durable top-seeded Indonesian duo of Tontowi Ahmad and Lilyana Natsir, who had last won this title in 2015, surrendering the crown to the No 2 seeds, Wang Yilyu and Huang Dongping, by a 17-21, 17-21 margin.
Even though it was a reasonably close battle with a few lengthy rallies, the far younger Chinese pair appeared swifter on their feet throughout, and it became apparent that the Indonesians, Olympic and world champions in the past, had slowed down. It also came as no surprise when 32-year-old Natsir announced that the Asian Championships would be her last international tournament, and that she was looking forward to retirement.
Japan, the other country to have four representatives in the Badminton Asia Championships finals, also finished with two titles, with the women’s doubles gold medal to add to the one captured by Momota. The match involved the world’s No 2 and 3 pairs, with the latter pairing of Yuki Fukushima and Sayaka Hirota outlasting their compatriots, Ayaka Takahashi and Misaki Matsutomo by a 21-18, 18-21, 21-15 verdict in the final match of the day, that went to 81 minutes.
Whatever the result of the other four events, it was Momota’s phenomenal performance throughout the competition that was the talk of the day. The 24-year-old Japanese left-hander became Asian champion in style, knocking out four players ranked among the top-10 in the world, three of them in straight sets.
Starting out from an unseeded position with a routine 21-11, 21-15 victory over Vietnam’s Nguyen Tien Minh, the Japanese dropped his only game of the tournament while notching up a 21-15, 12-21, 21-12 win over No 4 seed, Shi Yuqi of China, winner of the All England title last month. What struck badminton aficionados during this performance was Momota’s physical fitness; he was able to go the entire distance playing at the same pace as when he had started the match.
In the quarter-final, the Japanese literally toyed with his redoubtable fellow southpaw from Chinese Taipei, Chou Tien Chen, seeded seventh in this tournament, by an absolutely incredible 21-5, 21-13 scoreline. Even the most ardent fans of the mercurial player would have rubbed their eyes in disbelief as Momota treated Chou with near-contempt throughout their duel, which lasted a mere 38 minutes.
The penultimate round saw Momota wear down the No 5 seed, Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia, who had excelled in his previous outing by lowering the colours of top-seeded Indian, Kidambi Srikanth. The Japanese won that bout 21-19, 21-14, leaving the veteran gasping, a passenger during the second half of the second stanza.
An even more laudable feat was the demolition of the two-time former world champion and 2016 Olympic gold medallist, Chen Long, in the final, in front of the latter’s home crowds. The Chinese player had won every one of his four earlier meetings with Momota in straight games, although the two had not crossed swords after September 2015.
The decibel levels at the jampacked Wuhan Sports Centre dwindled steadily as the hour-long gold medal encounter progressed, and it became increasingly apparent that their man had finally come up against a brick wall, and that he was not going to be able to break through that barrier.
Momota jumped out into 9-2 and 10-4 leads in the lung-opener, but then found the smooth-striding Olympic champion draw level at 11-all, and go ahead to 14-12. This was when the Japanese changed gears, and won nine of the next dozen points, to leave Chen shaking his head in disbelief at his rival’s iron control over the toss and the clear from the net, as also the acrobatic defence that saw him get several near-impossible shots back.
The unseeded Japanese was ahead by at least a couple of points right through the duration of the second game; and really rubbed salt into Chen’s wounds by grabbing the final seven points of the match just when it looked as if the Chinese ace might be able to take the contest to a decider. It was a display of supreme confidence as much as unflappable temperament by one of the exceptional talents of our times.
“This is an important victory for me, and I dedicate it to all those who stood by me,” Momota said, later. “In my first tournament on my comeback, when I lost to (compatriot) Kanta Tsuneyama in the final of the Canada Open, I was confused about my own form and ability.
“Today, I had to be mentally strong even when I had a big lead; otherwise, Chen Long would have caught up with me. It is really significant that I beat Lee Chong Wei and Chen Long in the same tournament... but I have to do much more to catch up with them.”
Momota is back where he belongs – at the top. A sadder but wiser man, and one having lost none of the remarkable skills that had taken him to the world junior title, six years ago.
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Updated Date: Apr 30, 2018 18:20:58 IST