ASIAN GAMES Men’s Singles Preview – Can China conquer Mt. Momota?

If in-form Kento Momota wants to add Asian Games gold to him World title, he will have to fend off a combination of ageing masters, wily underdogs, and fellow contenders […]

If in-form Kento Momota wants to add gold to him World title, he will have to fend off a combination of ageing masters, wily underdogs, and fellow contenders in their prime.

By Umang Shah.  Photos: Badmintonphoto

The new favourite

Earlier this season, Kento Momota (pictured) lost just one game on his way to the Indonesia Open title – rampaging the likes of Srikanth Kidambi, Anthony Ginting, Tommy Sugiarto, Lee Chong Wei, and finally Viktor Axelsen in the final.

Even former World Champion Viktor Axelsen of Denmark admitted after losing to the Japanese star, “I think Kento is No.  1 right now, with what he has shown over the last few months, coming back and beating everyone.”

And surely that was sealed earlier this month in Nanjing with Momota becoming the first Japanese player to win the World Championships in men’s singles.  Momota overwhelmed China’s Shi Yuqi in the final with a straight games victory.

With an incredible win-loss record of 39-3 in 2018 so far, the 23-year-old is the favourite for the gold medal in Jakarta.

Interestingly, two of the three players to have beaten Momota this year – Lee Chong Wei and Sameer Verma of India – are not even in the draw.  That leaves only Chinese Taipei’s Chou Tien Chen (pictured right), who managed to win in the third game at the German Open.

The void

Notable among that list of Momota-beaters is, of course, reigning Commonwealth Games Champion Lee Chong Wei (pictured).  The Malaysian’s last-minute withdrawal from the World Championships and the upcoming Asian Games due to a respiratory illness shocked the badminton community.  There was immense pressure on the flagbearer of Malaysian badminton to win at the top-tier tournaments after his historic 12th title on the home-ground of the Malaysia Open.

The former world #1 had medalled at each of the last three Asiads – albeit the gold always eluded him.  The Malaysian won the bronze in Doha, 2006; silver in Guangzhou, 2010 & bronze again in Incheon, 2014.

Looking back at 35-year-old Datuk Lee’s exemplary career – the silverware from multiple Olympics, Worlds, Thomas Cups & Asian Games only add to his legendary status; but a prominent gold medal is conspicuous by its absence, almost to a tragic so-near-yet-so-far level. 

When asked about his sporting ambitions for his bio on the BWF website, “The Olympic gold medal.” answered the three-time Olympic Silver medallist.  Fans around the world would love to use some creative liberty in a fanfic sequel to his recently released biopic.

There is some respite for the Malaysian contingent after Liew Daren’s surprise run at the Worlds, which culminated into a bronze medal.  They will be hoping for the draw to open up once again in his favour.

Enter the Dragon

The aura of invincibility around Lin Dan (pictured above, with Shi Yuqi) has slowly but surely faded with time.  If the enigma that is “Super Dan” can manage to win a hat-trick of Asiad golds in men’s singles – it will be another incredible chapter in the legend of the “Greatest-Of-All-Time”.  The two-time defending champion from the Guangzhou and Incheon Games has a chance to create history – by becoming the first singles player to win the Asian Games gold thrice!

However, there have been reports indicating that Lin Dan might play only in the team event.  Another Chinese veteran, Chen Long, has not had terrific results this year as compared to his own prolific standards.  He settled for bronze for the second consecutive Worlds but the man who beat him could prove to be good news for China.

Compatriot and top seed Shi Yuqi (pictured) has taken on the mantle to keep the Chinese flag flying high.  The youngster stunned Lin Dan and the world in the final to win the prestigious All England title.  What sets him apart from the others is his spectacular shot placement.  The world #2 hit a body smash followed by a jump smash down the line in the quarters of the World Championships.  Lin Dan challenged the call to get a breather, only to watch it be verified by the hawk-eye system that the shot was bang on the middle of the line.  Shi Yu Qi didn’t show any emotion on his face during the semi-final battle with Chen Long.  But as soon as he won the match point, he dropped on his knees and roared with his hands up in the air.

Draw disrupters

In the past, Srikanth Kidambi and H. S. Prannoy have not been able to take full advantage of an opening in the draw.  Besides physical endurance, these days athletes also need to undergo mental conditioning to deal with pressure during the business end of matches.  This aspect has been a hindrance for the Indians in the way of reaching their maximum potential.  Can the perennial underdogs flip the tables and get on the podium?

Elsewhere in the field, world #5 Son Wan Ho of South Korea is making a comeback after nursing an injury which ruled him out of the Worlds.  Host Indonesia has chosen Anthony Ginting (pictured) and Jonatan Christie in the squad ahead of the points leader Tommy Sugiarto.

Conclusion

The future looks promising with talented players like Momota and Shi coming of age.  The old-timers are not going anywhere without a last hurrah.  Will a wildcard like Srikanth, Chou or Liew run away with the title this time around?  Catch all the action on a live stream near you.

Click here for the list of participants from the Asian Games website

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Umang Shah

About Umang Shah

Umang is a law student & consultant from Mumbai, India. He is an Olympic sports aficionado & amateur archer. When not watching television or listening to podcasts, he procrastinates about writing on badminton, tennis & archery. You can contact him at @Umang20294 on Twitter.