There are top-class players and then there is Kento Momota.
The Japanese wizard has answers to almost everything on the court, trouncing opponents left, right and centre with a menacing approach. In a game of uncertainties, Momota's domination is inevitable. Since returning from the ban in mid-2017, he has won 17 titles — one World Championships, two Asian Championships, eight World Tour titles, three Grands Prix, four International titles and has reached No 1 in a matter of a few months.
Momota's level of consistency is unrivalled. Out of all the matches he's played in Basel, not one has been a three-game affair. None of his opponents even dared to dig deep for three games. Even in the previous edition, only Denmark's Anders Antonsen managed to stretch the Japanese to three games. Incidentally, he faces the lanky Dane in the men's singles final on Sunday.
But on Saturday, it was another practice session for Momota as B Sai Praneeth's dream week came to a close. Before the match, the commentators hyped up the match by calling it an enticing encounter with Praneeth's attacking trickery up against the steely defence and measured gameplan of Momota.
Just a day ago, an emotional Praneeth sank to the ground after ending India's 36-year wait for a men's singles medal at the Worlds. After two higher-ranked scalps, the semi-final match against the World No 1 was another improbable hurdle. For Momota, it transpired into a 40-minute warm-up for the final.
Starting explosively, Praneeth gave a courageous fight in the match till 10-10. He made Momota work on the tramlines with his intelligent cross-game. Momota, like other Japanese shuttlers, does not hesitate to keep retrieving, but even he chuckled when cross-court smash from the backcourt was marvellously sent back by Praneeth, who had to dive full stretch on the right.
The World No 1 is known to start slow, something Praneeth was aware of. So, he started to apply more pressure from the baseline. The mid-game break helped a startled Momota to tweak his gameplan and push his opponent to the backcourt more often. He avoided engaging in long rallies by pouncing on lofty shots by Praneeth. It worked like a charm. Five straight points for the Japanese in a jiffy. He looked in control of the rallies and restricted Praneeth to hit strokes from the backline. Praneeth floundered, eventually.
After a brief chat with coach Pullela Gopichand at the change of ends, he targeted the Japanese's backhand side as much as possible but Momota kept floating on the court. His gameplay reminded how Lin Dan would cover the court back and forth gracefully whenever he played a patient Lee Chong Wei, who was equally graceful from the backcourt with his unmatched on-court presence. Praneeth boasts of a variety of strokes but he's no Lee Chong Wei or even remotely patient. Though Praneeth won the second game against Jonatan Christie easily in the quarter-finals, the first game indicated his lack of patience.
Despite the weakness, Praneeth's pace played a huge part in his rare winning run. Also, there seems to be minimal drift inside the St Jakobshalle Arena, which allowed a fast-court player like Praneeth to showcase his trickery. But when Momota forced him to play back and forth, Praneeth crumbled. The Indian rushed at the net trying to play delicate drop shots. Even the tossed-up shots from the backcourt were cut short quite comfortably by Momota.
Highlights | Show of strength by the defending champion @momota_kento 🇯🇵🏸
— BWF (@bwfmedia) August 24, 2019
As it turned out, Momota hardly broke a sweat and schooled Praneeth after the first half of the opening game. A 21-13, 21-8 scoreline highlighted consistency at major events. Looking at his astounding overall game, Momota would be favourite to defend his title. He has been barely tested by Praneeth or anyone in Basel so far. But now, he crosses swords against Antonsen who successfully tested the Japanese in Nanjing last year. The commentators labelled it as a battle of a unique range of Antonesen and Momota's magnificent work-rate and court coverage.
But Praneeth will look back at his run as another opportunity to build his case ahead of the Olympics in Tokyo next year. No one expected Praneeth to reach this far in the tournament. However, his controlled gameplan and the perfect use of trick shots have earned him a medal.
In what has been a near-flawless week, the historic bronze is a reward for brushing aside his indifferent form with maturity. Beating Anthony Ginting and Jonatan Christie, two higher-ranked Indonesians, is no fluke. It showed how he's in the process of developing a unique style of a player with trickery and the on-court flexibility.
"This was one of my best tournaments that I ever had in my career. There are lots of learning and positives to take. I think the recent performances have been good," Praneeth told reporters.
"I suddenly lost 3 points with small mistakes and with that the flow," he told the BWF website after the match. "Compared to last time I was playing the strokes, pushing the pace but not getting points. So I was mentally getting tired and I didn’t know what to do after 3-4 strokes went."
Sai Praneeth praised Momota and said, "When you compare Momota with other players, you can't just go in blindly. You need to be fit enough and stay with him and keep on changing strategies."
Not many can crack the code. Antonsen is the closest. Let's see if he can crack it in the final.
Updated Date: Aug 25, 2019 13:43:04 IST