Japanese badminton star Kento Momota said Thursday he was worried he would never play in the Olympics after a catalog of career incidents, but feels “positive” about the Tokyo Games.
World number one Momota was banned from Japan’s 2016 Rio Games team for illegal gambling and was almost forced to retire last year after a serious car accident.
But the unprecedented postponement of the Tokyo Games due to the coronavirus pandemic has given him time to recover, and he is aiming for gold when he finally makes his Olympic debut later this month.
“When the Games were postponed for a year and then it was announced that they could be canceled, I thought a lot about how I might not be able to play in the Olympics,” said Momota to reporters on Thursday.
“But a lot of people worked hard to get the competition going, and I just tried to block out the noise and put everything in the things I can control.”
Momota added that his fitness has improved “bit by bit” and that he “is feeling really good” ahead of the tournament.
“I don’t think of negative thoughts, I only think of positive thoughts,” he said.
Momota was unstoppable in 2019, winning a record 11 titles, including the World Championships, Asian Championships and the All England Open.
But he said his “mind was almost broken” after a car crash in January 2020 – hours after winning the Malaysia Masters – which killed the driver of the vehicle that took him to the airport.
Momota underwent surgery on a fractured eye socket after suffering double vision in training and admitted he feared his career was over.
“I think the area I really grew up in is mentally,” he said.
“I had to face a lot of difficulties, and having worked hard to get here gives me confidence before the competition.”
– ‘Really alone’ –
Momota returned to the Japanese National Championships in December after almost a year of absence.
But his hopes of returning to international competition at the Thailand Open in January were dashed when he tested positive for the virus at the airport before leaving.
His only appearance was at the All England Open in March, where he lost in the quarterfinals to Malaysian Lee Zii Jia.
“It was important for me to get the feeling you get in a real game,” he said.
“There weren’t any fans in the arena and I felt really lonely. I couldn’t concentrate and I couldn’t settle down, so I paid attention to that in training.”
Momota will look to fend off the challenge of Danes Viktor Axelsen and Anders Antonsen in Tokyo, with defending Chinese champion Chen Long also in contention.
The pandemic has forced tournaments around the world to be canceled, but Momota isn’t worried about spotting his opponents.
“I haven’t been able to fully grasp their characteristics and styles of play, but the same goes for them too,” he said.
“Everyone’s in the same boat, so you really need to focus on your own game as best you can. “