Badminton

'Nervous' Momota Kento wins highly anticipated return to court

In first match since fatal January car crash, the world's No. 1 shuttler dismisses high-school opponent 2-0 in opening round of All-Japan Championships.

By Shintaro Kano ·

The best in the badminton business is back.

Men's world No. 1 Momota Kento returned to action for the first time in nearly a year on Wednesday (23 December), comfortably winning his first-round match at the All Japan Championships.

Momota made quick work of second-year high school student Moriguchi Koshiro in 36 minutes (21-12, 21-14) in his first match since 13 January - the day he was almost killed in a car crash in Kuala Lumpur.

Arriving in time to welcome the year of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, the two-time defending champion expectedly overwhelmed his teenage opponent although Momota admitted he was nervous throughout the contest.

"I made a lot of mistakes because I had the butterflies but I felt good on my feet. My strokes weren't bad either", he told reporters.

"I have to make adjustments and get ready for tomorrow's match.

"I'm back on the court thanks to all those who supported me. I went through a lot the last 11 months and I hope I can show everyone my appreciation through the performances.

"I just need to be confident in what I've done to make it back".

Baptizing by fire

Momota jumped out to a 9-2 lead in the first game and never looked back against Moriguchi, who didn't help himself by committing a series of unforced errors.

The second game became slightly more intriguing when Moriguchi rattled off six straight points to pull within 10-7.

But that's when Momota turned it up, winning eight of the next 10 points to effectively put the match to bed.

Momota said the empty stands at the Machida municipal gymnasium on the outskirts of Tokyo clearly had an effect on his game.

No spectators were allowed inside the venue, as part of COVID-19 countermeasures.

"I'm the type who feeds off the crowd", the 26-year-old said.

"It was a little disheartening to see the stands empty and this being my first match back, I wanted people watching me. But the situation is what it is and I stepped on the court determined to do what I could." - Momota Kento

"The way I play, I let the match come to me. Today though I tried to force myself and wasn't watching the opponent as well as I should have".

Easing way back

Following the January accident that claimed the life of his driver, Momota had surgery in February in Japan to repair a broken right eye socket as he was seeing double.

He resumed practice at the end of the month, just prior to the postponement of major BWF events due to the coronavirus pandemic, resulting in the world rankings being frozen from 17th March.

By late June, Momota was having zero issues with his eye and in September, rejoined the national team for a training camp.

Momota - who claims he is always nervous for his first match at the All Japans - said the conditioning work he put in during his time away from competition is paying off.

He is four wins away from netting his fourth title overall, and will face Hatano Riku in the second round on Thursday.

"Being perfectly honest, I usually get really uptight in the first round of the All Japans. Not to mention today was my first competition in a while so I was uneasy", said Momota, who is scheduled to travel to Bangkok next month for the Thailand Open.

"Obviously my goal is to win the championship here but I'm trying not to think that far ahead and take it one step at a time as always.

"There were some difficult times getting here but once I was back at work there was no way I was going be broken - more for the people who backed me than for myself".