• AFP-Jiji, Kyodo


Badminton world No. 1 Kento Momota won the All-Japan championships on Sunday to complete the first step of his comeback, nearly a year after suffering serious injuries in a car crash.

Momota came from behind to beat world No. 11 Kanta Tsuneyama 18-21, 21-12, 21-17 in Tokyo, marking a successful return from the accident that left him fearing his career might be over after fracturing an eye socket.

“Lots of things have happened this year,” said Momota, who played his first match of the tournament on Wednesday. “I gave everything I had. At the end, I had nothing left in my locker.”

“Tsuneyama reached the final in almost perfect fashion and I honestly thought it was going to be difficult. But I went onto the court determined not to have any regrets, and that factored into managing to concentrate and pick up each point toward the end.”

The win gave Momota his third straight national title, and he immediately turned his thoughts towards making his international comeback at the Thailand Open in January.

“I had the initiative in the first game but then I started to lose my cool once I had the lead,” said Momota.

“I think that’s because I’m still not used to playing matches. In the second and third games, I wanted to put all my feeling into it regardless of technique or tactics, and I think I willed myself to the win.

“The Thailand Open starts in the new year and I’ll be able to play against players from overseas. I want to go there and show what I can do as the top Japanese player.”

In January, hours after he won the Malaysia Masters, a van carrying Momota crashed into a truck, killing the driver and causing non-life-threatening injuries to three other passengers. Momota suffered lacerations to his face, heavy bruising across his body and was later diagnosed with a broken right eye socket.

He resumed training in late February after undergoing facial surgery but was unable to compete as the coronavirus pandemic forced changes to sporting schedules worldwide including the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

“I had the accident and tough times thereafter but I feel everyone had a tough year, forced to live lives they weren’t hoping for,” Momota said. “I believe there have been people longing for tournaments like this and hopefully I can continue to provide positive news through sports.”

He admitted to feeling nervous as he returned to competition this week in Tokyo, and he was pushed to the limit by Tsuneyama, who took him to 16-16 in the final game only to crumble with victory in sight.

“I was too cautious,” said Momota, who also had to come from a game down in the quarterfinals. “Before, my game was about using everything I’d built up over time, and my results gave me the confidence to do that.

“This week, I hadn’t played for a long time so I was very anxious going into each match. But I think my game will start to return now that I’ve won this title.”

Momota is one of Japan’s brightest hopes for a gold medal on home soil at the Tokyo Games next year.

The 26-year-old left-hander won a record-breaking 11 titles last year, and he is confident of adding more after tasting success this week in Tokyo.

“I’m 70 percent relieved and 30 percent happy,” said Momota. “I’m known as world No. 1 Momota, so I feel that I’m not allowed to lose.

“It wasn’t easy for me to get the number one ranking. It’s because of my experience and ability, and I really hate to lose.

“That pride helps me but there is also pressure, and I want to keep doing more. If I can, I want to get back to training tomorrow.”

In the women’s singles final, world No. 4 and 2016 Rio de Janeiro bronze medalist Nozomi Okuhara beat world No. 3 Akane Yamaguchi 17-21, 21-14, 22-20.

“There’s always a high-level, insightful gamesmanship on display when I face Akane and I really enjoyed playing,” Okuhara said of her second straight national title and fourth overall. “I’ve been working on my footwork during the pandemic and that showed in reacting to her tricky returns.”

In mixed doubles, Misaki Matsutomo, a 2016 Olympic women’s doubles champion, and her partner Yuki Kaneko finished runners-up as the world’s No. 5 pair, Yuta Watanabe and Arisa Higashino, won 21-11, 21-9 to capture their fourth straight national championship.

Ayaka Takahashi, who partnered Matsutomo to the Olympic title in 2016, announced her retirement in August.

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