SHANGHAI – Kento Momota was banned from badminton for gambling in 2016.
Fast forward to 2019, and the star is enjoying one of the most successful years in the sport’s history.
Momota has cleaned up in men’s badminton over the past 12 months, winning a record 11 titles, a haul that includes the World Championships, Asia Championships and All England Open.
The 25-year-old capped his remarkable 2019 campaign by fighting back from a game down to defeat Indonesia’s Anthony Ginting in Sunday’s decider at the BWF World Tour Finals in Guangzhou, China.
No men’s badminton player, not even Malaysia’s Lee Chong Wei or Chinese great Lin Dan, has won as many tournaments in a season.
The left-handed Momota has played 73 matches this year, losing just six times, and admits he has surprised even himself with his blistering form.
Lee won 10 titles in 2010.
“Although I broke the record of Lee Chong Wei, I don’t think I can be compared to him as a player and as a human being,” Momota said.
“I feel like I am not yet a legendary player but I will work hard in order to play well in future tournaments.”
There is now only one major individual title missing from the all-action Japanese player’s trophy case — Olympic gold.
Barring injury, loss of form or more controversy, Momota will be the favorite to rectify that on home soil in Tokyo at next summer’s 2020 Games.
Winning gold would be particularly satisfying for Momota after Japanese badminton chiefs barred him from the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro for visiting illegal casinos in Japan.
Momota received an indefinite suspension on April 11, 2016. He was also given a 30-day ban from his club team NTT East, after which he resumed practicing with his teammates.
He did not watch any of the Olympics because it was too painful. His suspension was lifted in May of 2017.
“I still feel remorse and cannot be sorry enough for what happened,” he told the Olympic Channel over the weekend.
“I’d be lying if I said I don’t think about (next year’s) Olympics.
“I troubled a lot of people last time.
“For those who supported me when I wasn’t playing, I want to repay them somehow at Tokyo.”
Momota fell as low as No. 282 in the world rankings in July 2017, but his ascension since his return to the sport has been breathtaking.
He was seventh in the rankings in August 2018, when he became the first Japanese man to win the singles title at the World Championships.
This August, Momota retained his crown as the undisputed No. 1.
It is all a far cry from the days when he would follow his sister to her badminton practices as a youngster.
“Before I knew it, I was also playing,” Momota said.
His dominance comes as Lin and Lee, two of the biggest names to grace men’s badminton, fade from view.
In June, Lee, now 37, retired after fighting off nose cancer.
His nemesis, the 36-year-old Lin, is desperate to end his career with a shot at a third Olympic gold but faces a battle to even qualify for Tokyo.
Steen Pedersen, Denmark’s former head coach, says Momota is a “very complete” player.
“Momota is right up there in every category of the skill sets for men’s singles, very few weak areas,” he added while speaking as a television commentator at the BWF Finals.
The Olympics are still seven months away but Japan is already clamoring for Momota to turn his dominance into home gold next year.
“Gaining momentum for gold in Tokyo!! A clean sweep of big titles in the pre-Olympic year,” Sports Nippon declared on Monday in a headline.
“He has become the undisputed king by enhancing his speed on top of his solid defense,” the daily added.
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