I miss seeing my favourites on court so, as a response to the gloomy news about the postponement of the Malaysia Open, I have worked out the essence of a perfect player by taking the best bits from some of the finest athletes in the men’s game.
Vivacity: Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo
We delight in Kevin as an unstoppable force of nature. His zesty intelligent play on court is exhilarating for spectators and often overwhelming for opponents. His expertise at reading the game gives him stellar anticipation and fused with his technical ability, it’s not hard to see why he and Marcus Gideon have been World #1 for so long. I love his high-speed reactions, his ambition and his imaginative vision.
Momota’s will to win, his unflappable demeanour and apparently unlimited stamina have all driven him on to the top of many podiums. On court he is economic with his emotions and strategy but his relentless return of the shuttle breaks his rivals resolve and often exposes their lack of ideas. Over the years he has overcome so many hurdles that his invincible aura just becomes brighter and brighter. He is an awesome athlete who plays with speed and accuracy and deserves his World #1 status.
Speed: Anthony or Yuta?
Intuitively I’d always choose Anthony Ginting in this category – his effortless, flowing movement is so classy and quick. His fleet-footed style dovetails nicely with his silky racket skills too…however I ran a Twitter poll a few weeks ago and some fan’s answers made me reconsider a little especially Mia Wenas who suggested Yuta Watanabe. Comparing singles and doubles players is tricky but Yuta’s court coverage and agile movement is hard to equal. I always think he wears a shirt that looks too big and this disguises his movement somewhat. He is one of the few players who can face Kevin over a net as an equal and so because of that he has to be recognised here.
100% Legend: Hendra Setiawan
Nobody wins all the major titles in their sport by chance: Hendra is an icon of the game. His calm demeanour under pressure, his quick-witted strategic assessments on court and his extravagant skills at the net make him a truly wonderful player. His humble response to compliments and victories are the mark of a real gentleman. A badminton role model worldwide.
Street Fighting Man: Anders Antonsen
Antonsen has stepped up a level in the past couple of years; like all elite badminton players his technical skills are superb but what I really like about him is that he is a resourceful scrapper. Many were shocked by his somewhat controversial tactics when winning against Viktor Axelsen at the World Tour Finals back in January. His energy conserving strategy of conceding the second set was daring and ultimately successful; it took a ton of confidence to risk everything for the title but his gamble worked.
Firepower: Praveen Jordan or Viktor Axelsen
Probably the two hardest-hitters in the game but that does not do either man’s game justice. I’m fascinated to see what these two competitors can achieve at the Tokyo Olympics – they have a realistic chance of Gold but power alone does not win badminton matches.
I’ve really enjoyed trying to nail down the charactersitics of a Gold Medal player but this was just for fun. I’m sure that on another day I may’ve found room for Jonathan Christie, CHOU Tien Chen or SHI Yuqi. It’s hardly fair to single out players without mentioning their partners if they are from the doubles sector so don’t take this too seriously. Comments are welcome.
The whole tournament is dominated by the most eagerly awaited comeback in modern badminton history. The return of Momota. The spotlight will be on him from the second he steps back on court.
Kento Momota is like a ravenous lion circling a water hole and preparing to pounce on unsuspecting antelope; here is a lion who hasn’t tasted red meat in a looong time.
It’s impossible to guess his level of fitness after such a lengthy absence but his superior mental strength will have driven him on to train and stay focused. He has all the weapons to regain his title after missing the AE last year and he can often expose highly seeded opponents as one-dimensional. He has an aura of a returning king although he must feel some nerves about the standards he can reach at the beginning of his campaign. Viktor Axelsen has set a high benchmark over the past three months so Momota must be on guard. Prediction: Final
Viktor Axelsen – the defending champion – had a brilliant January in Thailand so he will be arriving in Birmingham with high hopes of keeping his title. He has been awesome at grabbing opportunities to win over the past 3 months: a living embodiment of Carpe Diem. However, that loss at the WTF keeps niggling away at me. His power, fitness and will to win are second to none but he was unsettled by Antonsen’s cunning tactics. Falling prey to a version of the rope-a-dope trick must have been incredibly frustrating and I wonder what the effect of that will be long-term. Axelsen has introduced us to his ‘mental coach’ recently, who is an ex special forces soldier so he clearly wishes to explore how his psychology can give him an edge. In the final of the Swiss Open he was unstoppable as he bulldozed his way to the trophy. It’s worth noting that his opponent – Vitidsarn – did start the encounter well and his tactics reminded me of Momota’s ‘waiting game’ approach, but he made too many errors and ran out of steam. Momota has plenty of stamina and he knows not to give VA power to feed off, so if they meet in the final Viktor should be pushed harder. Prediction Runner up
Anders Antonsen – the WTF Champion – is never a person to fade into the background and the past six months have been full on drama. Starting in October, his epic battle against Gemke in the final of the Denmark Open left both unable to walk unaided from the arena, in November he contracted Covid, January saw patchy performances in the first two tournaments in Bangkok then he roared back to form in the WTF to snatch victory away from Axelsen; this all adds layers of experience to an intelligent player who needs to be on court. Viktor has better fitness and stamina but Antonsen has better strategies. Last year’s YAE saw him retire hurt from his semi-Final against CHOU Tien Chen which was a huge disappointment as he had every chance of making the final at that point. He is seeded 3 so it may be that we see an all-Danish semi final with the liklihood of a fired-up Viktor looking for revenge.
Anthony Ginting spearheads the Indonesia challenge in this sector. When he is consistently at his best, he is unstoppable and we saw flashes of this brilliance in Thailand but he didn’t have enough for a podium finish. On the whole, after such a long break, his performance gave some cause for optimism, or at least no cause for alarm. In the SF of the Yonex Thailand Open he came up against a resolute VA in the third set but overall, he lost that tie 53-55 which puts a revealing slant on his defeat. His levels dropped off in the next two tournaments and this is exasperating as he is such a glorious player. I saw lockdown as a useful opportunity for some players to improve areas of their game and instinctively I would point to his ‘third set’ strategies. There are not really gaps in his technique but something is missing in this area that his coaches need to address. I would love to see him come to Birmingham and gift us fans a MomoGI in the semi final. And then I want a final.
Kunlavut Vitidsarn was the World Junior Champion for three years running (2017/18/19) and is one of badminton’s rising stars. Axelsen demolished him in the second set of the final of the Swiss Open but his fluency around the court and technical skill is exciting. As he builds on his experience and puts more hours in at the gym we will see an improvement in stamina and pace. The fact that he stayed with Viktor in the first set whilst playing patiently should worry Jonatan Christie who plays him in the first round.
Jonatan Christie is seeded 5 and has a brutal draw: possibly meeting Axelsen at the QF stage. If so then he could struggle to progress as their h2h coupled with the Danes form doesn’t indicate any easy points. It would be wonderful to see him get to the weekend but it would be a bit of a jaw-dropper if he can subdue the Dane. Last year LEE Zii Jia who is seeded 6, had a thrilling run to the SF before losing in a closely fought match with VA. He is very mobile, with good technical skills, a great player for a neutral to support. He looked a bit lethargic at the Swiss Open so perhaps he is an athlete who needs to compete consistently to maintain his focus and pace. A possible Quarter Final with Momota is on the horizon and to have any dream of progress he must improve on his recent form.
Owing to Marin’s late withdrawal from the tournament the top half of the draw is suddenly looking less intimidating for the other players. Akane, Pornpawee, and Pursala would have had to beat her to get to the final; now there is one less obstacle on the road.
Akane Yamaguchi is seeded 3 but still, this will be the first time we have seen her in an international tournament for a year and I honestly don’t know what we can expect. She was the beaten finalist (in three sets) against Nozomi at the All-Japan National Championships in December. Before the pandemic her brief period at World #1 was followed by some inconsistency. At her best, she is a contender for the title, so the puzzle is about the level she is at when she hits the courts on the 17th March. She is known as a retriever but there have been occasions when she has used a fiercer style; combining more aggression with her great court coverage will give her more options when she is under pressure. The prospect of a QF against Pornpawee is intriguing. Mew nearly beat Marin in the Semi Final of the Swiss Open; she seemed down and out but hauled herself back into contention. Peppery unpredictability with unlimited stamina could be a good strategy.
Nozomi Okuhara‘s victory in the final of the Denmark Open over Marin came after a dazzling two sets; she would not let the Spaniard get a foothold in the game. The strategy of frustrating and denying her the chance to build a competitive rhythm disrupted her momentum and was a key element in Nozomi’s success. In the context of 2019 where she consistently reached finals only to lose this was a big breakthrough. The court coverage, stamina and sheer stubbornness of Nozomi are hard to break. She last won in 2016 but with the Tokyo Olympics in mind she will be aiming to become a hard player to beat at the end of a tournament so this is the perfect place to set a marker. The hall conditions should suit her but she must get the right balance between attack and defence.
Ratchanok Intanon – the #4 seed – is coming to the All England for another shot at winning the title. She was close in 2017 but was relegated to Silver by TAI Tzu Ying. We often criticise TTY for lack of patience but I think that May suffers with this too – her sublime technical skills sometimes mean that she doesn’t play the percentages. May could potentially be looking at a semi-final against Nozomi which would be a dream for fans. Rather like Anthony in the MS I wish she was more solid in the third set. It’s harder than it looks to behave with restraint in that section of a match but it is within her capabilities; we have all watched epic games where she fights with incredible grit and courage. In her 2020 win at the Indonesia Masters she overcame Marin in three sets so she can be inspired by this.
Pornpawee CHOCHUWONG’s progress since her victory over Carolina Marin at the Spain Masters in 2020 has been dislocated because of the effect of Covid cancellations on the badminton tour. Nevertheless, she had victories over TAI Tzu Ying and Ratchanok in Bangkok which shows that she has the ability to compete with the best. Her recent SF match against Carolina Marin at the Swiss Open was a defeat but she pushed all the way with a gritty and skilful display. Seeded 6 she has every reason to be optimistic if she can cut some of her errors. It would be an upset if she won the title but she has a chance – especially in the absence of Marin – and the mental stamina to push all the way to the end of a third set. Her obstinate outlook is a big advantage and it could be the foundation of tremendous achievements.
I would love to see Pursala V Sindhu rampage through the early rounds of this competition in the sort of form that won her the title at the World Championships in 2019. She’s a great athlete, but it just seems that sometimes she cannot dig herself out of a hole when the game tilts away from her. The final at the Swiss Open showed her difficulties; she struggled on her lunges to the front court to reach wide shots and wasn’t using any creativity to stop Marins anticipatory game. On the positive side she did get to the final and in the first set she seemed to have a bit more speed around the court. I hope that her coaching environment becomes more settled so that she can continue to develop her range.
So we have a men’s competition where we have to measure athletes against Viktor’s tough standards but Momota has returned to complicate things and a women’s competition that is missing TTY and Carolina but still features players with a realistic chance of the Gold medal later on in the year in Tokyo. All England success this year will go to the competitor who can come to the court with intensity and desire after twelve months of disruption and boredom. Can Viktor prove that he is the new King of the courts?
We know they inspire each other to brilliance: relentless attack verses unbending defence. But no-one could have predicted the twists and turns in this game, Momota’s life is a magnet for drama so this stage was set for him. Adrenaline overload as the two athletes walked out to the show court. Momota – gameface – seemingly oblivious to everything whilst Anthony, happy and smiling; chatting to the child mascot escorting him. A torrent of noise as the crowd made their support heard. The arena was dominated by Japanese supporters but there was a section full of Indonesian flags behind one end. Those fans, already emotionally exhausted by the achievements of Marcus & Kevin on Super Saturday were determined to bring the spirit of Istora to this match too.
Both of these men had a ‘perfect’ run to the final. Neither dropped a set or experienced any injury worries. In his SF against Anders Andersen, Momota was pushed hard and only won the second set after extra points: 23-21. He was determined to finish the game off and we saw unusual flashes of an impatient player at times. Anthony profited from SHI Yuqi’s obvious fatigue earlier in the tournament but in his SF against Malaysia’s LEE Zii Jia we saw a player fixed on forcing a win. LZJ could not live with his intelligent tactics in difficult playing conditions.
SET 1: 21-19 Momota
It was a fairly bloodless start to the match. Both were nervous and making unforced errors. Neither seemed able to read the drift in the Arena with Momota hitting the shuttle long at least three times. Anthony made 2 ill-judged challenges to line calls; Hawkeye was unmoved. Anthony decided he needed the court mopped but he was moving well. Momota’s usual patient, reactive style saw him win without too much effort. Plenty of analysts had predicted that the environment in the arena would suit him and in the first set at least they were proven right. All-in-all if you are going to watch the game on catch up skip the first set and jump to set 2.
SET 2: 13-21 Ginting. Fireworks.
After the damp squib of set one, set 2 had a rare incandescence. Rallies were contested at lightening pace, all sweat and reflex. Ginting had to win it to stay in the chase for the Gold. What did Coach Hendry say to him? Suddenly Anthony had dashed into a shocking 8-4 lead using beautiful precision shots building sequences to make the Japanese player scramble. Momota requested a doctor and the stadium held it’s breath. The big screen showed a close up of the King’s left foot. Only a small blister. To be honest, he should have been more careful putting his sock on, but after some freeze spray and a dressing he got up and returned to the fight. Abruptly Momota transformed himself. A long-hidden aggressive edge saw his usual game plan tilt away from persistant defence.
There was an urgency to his play that was utterly compelling. He started clawing his way back into the set and went into the interval 7-11. The foot was dressed again, but no shirt change. The 2 minute interval stretched into 2 and a half…3 minutes. Anthony was bouncing along a tramline, staying warm, ignoring the crisis. We watched as the umpire covered his microphone and said something short and sharp. Momota sprang up and took his position to receive serve; rocking forward and back full of contained energy. Anthony was pitiless. His movement was fluid and easy. Forcing Momota to move from corner to corner he dominated the rallies with vicious, irresistable attack; he was able to vary the pace, never allowing the left-hander to get a momentum going. At 13-19 Momota challenged a line call: it was a tactical challenge to allow himself time to regroup and to free up the interval for more treatment. He had obviously decided that it was better to let this set go and then have a ‘death or glory’ final game. 13-21 to Ginting.
Final Set: Blood, Sweat & Tears
Momota sat down and removed his shoe: the blood was obvious. Anxiety rippled through the Arena. Clean bandage, more freeze spray and tape. 1 minute and 50 seconds later he was back on court waiting for Ginting. No drama. Trying to make the psychological point (to who?) that he didn’t need to take the whole 2 minutes.
Immediately Momota seized the initiative with a trademark exchange at the net; the hairpin left Anthony wrong-footed. But as the points ticked by, backwards and forwards neither player could impose their game plan on the match. Momota abandoned all reliance on his ‘sit and wait’ strategy. His smash, follow up, kill routine was exhilarating but Ginting equalled him in power and desire. The fast flat exchanges across the net were shocking to watch. When Anthony could defend the initial smash he was then able to trap Momota far away from the net on the back trams. Mid-game interval 11-10 Momota.
The two players returned to the court for one last effort in this career defining match. Momota had to outlast Ginting. Anthony’s shots were sheer class, fantastic accuracy and control but it was clear that he was starting to tire. Momota had returned to his defensive approach and in the end it was his 1% of extra resilience that got him to the finishing line first: 21-18. Both players completely drained; Anthony hands on knees, looking down, Kento flat on his back on the court – no shout of victory, just exhaustion. Then they shake hands, embrace, smile. Both full of sporting concern for the other; exemplary behaviour from two exceptional players.
World Number 1 – Kento Momota – was crowned Olympic champion today in front of his home crowd after an heroic three set battle with Indonesia’s Anthony Ginting. Momota is confirmed King but that doesn’t tell you the story of a match that will become legendary.
Fans who were at the Musashino Forest Sportsplaza this evening will boast to their grandchildren ‘I was there’. It was magnificent, it was heartbreaking.
It never happened, all events are fictional. If you’d like someone else to win feel free to write your own.
Momota has been the dominant force in Men’s Singles all through 2019, his consistency and strength are second to none. It’s no surprise then, that after such an electrifying twelve months, his position as World #1 is very firmly fixed. King Kento triumphed over Viktor Axelson in the course of 3 dramatic games at the 2019 Yonex All England Championships and in doing so became the first Japanese man to win the title. His outstanding year earned him a total of 11 titles; it’s extraordinary to reflect that he has played in 73 matches and only lost 6. It’s hard to pinpoint who will challenge this relentless excellence anytime soon.
The key to the left-hander’s success is his domination of the net and the forecourt which allows him to control the progress of the duel. He is so fit he dictates the tempo of the contest. He is brilliant at game management because he is strategically quick witted – this allows anticipation to be a significant part of his armoury. If he misjudges his opponent’s tactics, he is electric around the court; his fast feet and lovely balance allow him to reach any area. This translates into further pressure for his opponent as they search for undefended space. As we would expect from an elite player, technically he is very accomplished with powerful and precise shots. The knack of swiftly spinning defence into attack rushes his rivals and means he can gain more time for himself.
His superb all-round game is underpinned by his athleticism. Lean and tall, his muscle to weight ratio gives him the perfect physique for badminton. It’s well known that he completes additional work in the gym long after his hitting partners have showered and returned home. A day off is a distraction from the training regime he is immersed in. He is driving himself to find that extra percentage point of fitness that can make the difference between triumph and defeat at the top level of sport. Winning a singles match over three games can become a war of attrition; perpetual movement is all. We have all seen collapses from cramp as players push themselves into their red zone. Once an opponent starts to falter physically Momota will ruthlessly force the issue and gain an inevitable win.
It’s been said that he can sometimes sit back and be too passive, it’s true that he can be patient but when the time is right, he explodes into action and will seize the match. Choosing shots to keep a rival off balance – even a simple sequence to move them around the corners – means that sooner or later the opportunity will open up to win the rally; it doesn’t seem to matter to the left-hander if the rally lasts 30,40, or 50 shots, inevitably his opponent ends up running further, becoming tired and making a mistake. He knows that opponents’ errors cost will them the match; being patient is – paradoxically – a sharp sword in his strategic make up. He often does not need to use his full repertoire; through a competition he can perform within himself and get a good result.
Playing against Momota is like becoming trapped in a maze; whichever tactics are employed they seem to lead to the dead end of defeat. He is impenetrable. Alone on the court with no partner to protect him he has to be emotionally self-reliant and confident in his own decisions. Defensively he can soak up pressure endlessly without using up too much energy. Victory in men’s singles often rests upon stamina, mental strength, and the sparing use of explosive power to punish mistakes.
Right now, he is getting further and further out of the reach of his rivals. His opponent at the Yonex All England 2019 final – Viktor Axelsen – has subsequently had an injury disrupted year and is only just starting to compete again at a good level. The Dane is famous for his 400 kph smash but this isn’t enough against Momota. In fact, the energy used for a smash can often contribute to defeat. CHOU Tien Chen, the world #2, has endurance and mental fortitude to equal him and will always ask tough questions in a match. The adorable SHI Yuqui – the 2018 YAE champion – has also suffered from injury problems, but if he was fully fit it is arguable that he would be the player to upset the World #1. In their Sudirman Cup match this year it was Momota who succumbed to accuracy, relentless athleticism and an unmatchable will to win.
I think his most interesting rival is Anthony Ginting despite what the world rankings say. Ginting’s sparkling style, his inventiveness, courage and speed push Momota to new heights. They inspire each other but it seems that this inspiration feeds the Japanese’s ambition and leaves Anthony unrewarded.
At the moment he is unstoppable. Over the years his career has taken a lot of twists and turns – including an enforced absence from Rio 2016 – but now it feels as though his time for greatness is approaching. His desire for success, his realisation that the Tokyo Olympics offers the chance of immortality, and possibly a need to make up for his mistakes in the past all give an irresistible vitality to his performances on court. The devastating effect that C-19 has had on the world means that all athletes are enduring a career hiatus. I’m confident that Momota has the mental strength to endure this delay. 2020 was the year his fans regarded with the highest expectations – so now we wait a little longer. Will 2021 be the year that Kento Momota cements his place amongst the legends of the game?