Kento Momota: Why I am my own biggest rival
Kento Momota is going to take some stopping at Tokyo 2020.
Since becoming Japan's first men's singles badminton world champion in August 2018, the left-hander has been far and away the best player on the planet.
Three-time Olympic silver medallist Lee Chong Wei enjoyed similar dominance in 2010 and 2013, winning seven BWF Super Series (now the World Tour) events in each of those years.
But he famously failed to win a world title despite his run of nearly four years at the top of the world rankings from 2008 to 2012.
Momota's next big target comes in July where he will also attempt to win something which eluded Lee, an Olympic gold on his overdue Games debut.
"I didn’t watch any of the 2016 Olympics because I felt too regretful. It was a tough time, but thanks to people who supported me I was able to get through it." - Kento Momota talking to Tokyo Weekender
Back from the depths
Momota missed Rio 2016 after accepting a one-year ban from international competition in April of that year for regularly visiting an illegal casino in Tokyo.
The Nippon Badminton Association agreed not to press charges which, had they reached a criminal court, could have seen the then world number two go to prison for up to three years.
That came just days after he defeated Viktor Axelsen to claim the India Open title having beaten the Dane in the final of the 2015 World Superseries Finals in Dubai.
Axelsen went on to take bronze in the Rio Games.
Reflecting on his exile, Momota told Tokyo Weekender, "I couldn’t play, I couldn’t see any goals and my future career looked extremely dicey. I really appreciate everyone who was there for me."
But he does not believe he was ready to challenge for the Olympic title back then.
"I was playing quite well at that point but don’t think I could have won the competition in Brazil. In fact, I would say at that point in my career it was probably impossible to take home the gold."
The 2012 world junior champion returned to action in April 2017, playing on the Challenger circuit as he did not have enough ranking points to take part in SuperSeries events.
And having worked hard on his game and his fitness, Momota made a hugely successful return to badminton's top echelon in 2018.
At the end of April, he showed his improvement by stunning Olympic champion Chen Long in the final of the Asian Championships in Wuhan, China.
In the final of the Thomas Cup a month later, he beat Chen again but could not stop Japan going down 3-1 to China.
The left-hander went into the World Championships as the sixth seed and took advantage of a kind draw to reach the final.
Shi went into the match as favourite, but he was outgunned by Momota who won 21-11, 21-13 to become Japan's first men's singles world champion.
Afterwards he said, "I want to be like Lee Chong Wei and Lin Dan, who ruled the world of badminton for a long, long time.
"They don’t only boast longevity, but they have always displayed top quality to entertain their fans."
Leading the way
That world title saw Momota begin to assert himself as the badminton's leading player.
After becoming Japan's first men's singles world number one in late September, he took his first Fuzhou China Open title before clinching the season-ending BWF World Tour Finals.
This year has been even better for the man from Mitoyo whose position at the top of the world rankings is not under threat any time soon.
He claimed Japan's first All England men's singles title in March and retained the Japan Open which doubled up as a test event for the Olympic Games.
Momota then made a successful defence of his world title before following it up with victories in the Victor China Open, the Korea Open and the Denmark Open where he defeated Olympic champion Chen again in the final.
A big reason for his dominance is his lightning speed around the court which allows him to convert defence into attack in an instant, although he says his main strength is his "*hairpin shot"* which is a drop shot from close to the net.
His game looks bulletproof at present but the 25-year-old insists he does have things to work on.
He told Tokyo Weekender, "My weakness is that I sometimes play too carefully. Recently, opponents have analysed my game and figured out how to play against me. I feel more effort is needed to combat this."
Given his superiority in recent times, it probably isn't surprising that Momota says his biggest rival is "Myself".
He adds, "I can only become stronger by overcoming my own weaknesses. I need to work harder so I can give back to those people who’ve supported me.
"I hope to qualify for the Olympics and play well for them. It’s my way of showing appreciation."
Kento Momota's tournament wins in 2019
Super 300 German Open
Super 1000 All England Open
Super 500 Singapore Open
Super 750 Japan Open
Super 1000 China Open
Super 500 Korea Open
Super 750 Denmark Open
Super 750 Fuzhou China Open