Badminton: Can World No. 1 Kento Momota's Olympic dream be crushed by Viktor Axelsen?
Japanese star shuttler Kento Momota will be a definite favourite at the Tokyo Olympics but Rio bronze medallist Viktor Axelsen will pose him a stiff challenge.
Reigning undisputedly, Japanese World No. 1 Kento Momota has been-there-and-done-it-all almost everywhere except at the Olympics, where the 26-year-old badminton star is yet to debut. Dominating the men's circuit, Kento Momota's career has seen him scale unprecedented heights. Fêted with a Guinness Record for winning the most number of BWF titles in a single badminton season - 11, Kento Momota was on a winning rampage in 2019, before tragedy struck. Involved in a car accident in January 2020, Momota was missing in action on the court for over an year. However, the Japanese star has begun scripting his comeback and is looking to reassert him dominance.
Few players have managed to really pose a challenge for the World No. 1 player yet the name of Denmark's Viktor Axelsen, at World No. 2, does come up. Having clashed 15 times in their career so far, the Kento Momota vs Viktor Axelsen clashes have been high on nail-biting action and tense moments galore. Although Momota dominates their head to head at 14-1, it will be absolutely unfair to write off the threat the 2016 Rio Olympics bronze medallist, Viktor Axelsen may pose for Momota.
In a manner of passing the baton in a relay race, badminton, since the turn of the century has seen the baton of rivalries being selectively passed down as well. At first, the fin de siècle saw Indonesian legend Taufik Hidayat's rivalry with Danish ace Peter Gade bloom. Both players stomped around the badminton circuit and all their 16 career meetings have been quite explosive. The duo have split their wins equally and have eight wins each against each other.
Carrying the baton, almost parallelly with Hidayat and Gade, was one of badminton's best-kept rivalries. China's Lin Dan and Malaysia's Lee Chong Wei became arch-rivals and spawned a rivalry that has been immortalised in the annals of badminton history. In their 38 career meetings, Lin Dan has triumphed 27 times and most importantly at the biggest of stages, chief of which are the Olympics and World Championships. Lin Dan kept Lee Chong Wei away from the Olympic gold and sadly, Chong Wei had to retire with 3 Olympic silvers instead while Dan retired with 2 Olympic golds.
Currently, the baton rests with none other than Kento Momota and Viktor Axelsen, who are hailed as some of the best in the business. While Kento Momota is aspiring for a comeback, Axelsen is in fantastic form and has had a good season so far. If they do clash in Tokyo, it will be a mouth-watering sight to witness as Momota will vie for a maiden medal and Axelsen will surely try to improve on his bronze medal outing in Rio 2016.
Viktor Axelsen has the potential to check Kento Momota's advance at the Olympics
The only time that Viktor Axelsen handed Kento Momota a defeat out of their 15 meetings so far was at the 2014 German Open, which was just the second time the duo clashed against each other. Apart from that, the tide has really been in favour of the Japanese star. However, for once, we need to look beyond the statistics here and consider the high octane nature of the matches they have contested in. Even though Momota has had the last word, it would be unfair to say that he had easily achieved it.
In fact, the 2017 World Champion, Viktor Axelsen is touted as one of the greats in badminton, currently. The Danish star, who is following keenly on the footsteps of Peter Gade, has been a constant name on the BWF circuit, as he has lapped up to title victories as well. Moreover, the talented Dane managed to slay 2-time Olympic gold medallist Lin Dan at the 2016 Rio Olympics in the bronze medal clash, 15–21, 21–10, 21–17 to bag the elusive brown metal.
In 2021, Viktor Axelsen is definitely enjoying a sharp form and will be entering Tokyo as a steady favourite. Apart from being a finalist at the 2021 All England Open, Axelsen has taken home the Yonex Thailand Open, the Toyota Thailand Open and the Yonex Swiss Open. On the other hand, to Axelsen's advantage will be the fact that Kento Momota has been out of action for quite some time owing to his eye surgery and rehabilitation. Momota made a comeback at the All England Open but crashed out in the quarter-finals after losing to eventual winner, the young Malaysian Lee Zii-Jia. If the Dane has to cause an upset, this time is as ripe as any and nothing can be grander than the Olympic stage to do it.
Can Kento Momota strike on home turf?
Despite all the success on paper, double World Champion Kento Momota's life has been fraught with difficulties knocking on his door. At first, the then 21-year-old budding Japanese sensation's Rio Olympic dreams were nipped after the Nippon Badminton Association imposed a one-year suspension on him for visiting an illegal casino in Tokyo. Being halted in such a crucial year, Japan's golden boy failed to debut in 2016.
In fact, Kento Momota's chances of playing at the Tokyo Olympics or even playing badminton at all, was put under serious threat when Momota suffered a near-death experience in January, 2020. Momota, who was on his way to the Kuala Lumpur airport after winning the Malaysia Masters got involved in a terrible car crash that took the life of the driver and gravely hurt two other Japanese officials present in the car. Kento Momota also was left injured with several facial bone fractures and had to undergo eye socket surgery in the ensuing months after he began getting double vision.
"After my accident I couldn't move at all, and I was striving to recover my fitness. Then the eye issue occurred and I was grappling with whether to have surgery or not," Kento Momota said in an interview where he even relayed that he had thought of giving everything up as well as his spirit was broken.
Having to skip the 2016 Rio Olympics after facing a ban due to gambling charges being pressed against him, Kento Momota is enjoying a resurgent streak. The 26-year-old has been dominating from his position at the helm of the BWF rankings since 2018. The Tokyo Olympics will present itself as a golden opportunity for the Japanese star as the Games will be held on home turf, in the presence of a mostly, Japanese crowd to cheer him on. It remains to be seen if Kento Momota can get his gears working and in shape to clinch a maiden Olympic medal and add to Japan's collection of 3 in the sport, so far!