EXCLUSIVE: Momota Kento on hitting "absolute rock bottom"

In a brutally honest interview with Olympics.com, the former world No. 1 describes his current struggles - and how he wants to find a new version of himself with eyes still on the summit of badminton.

By Shintaro Kano. Created on 1 September 2022.
Picture by 2022 Getty Images

When the 18th-ranked Prannoy H.S. eliminated him from last week's BWF World Championships to huge sighs from the crowd at Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, Momota Kento's world fell apart.

"For this tournament I worked really, really hard so after the match I hit absolute rock bottom," the two-time world champion told Olympics.com in an exclusive interview.

"I didn’t know what I should do next. But after conversations with various people, I’m starting to feel like I have to get back on my feet again, little by little," Momota said of his second-round departure from the first badminton world championships to ever be held in Japan.

Momota had never lost to Prannoy in eight previous career meetings. His fortunes did not fare much better this week at the Japan Open in Osaka, where Momota was knocked out of the men's singles first round by world No. 35 Chico Aura Dwi Wardoyo on Wednesday (31 August).

"I’ve played all kinds of matches in the past," Momota said. "Back then, when I felt like I wasn’t being aggressive enough, I could make the adjustments. But right now I’m not playing with the confidence I should have. It feels like a lot of it is mental.

"Think the biggest thing is, the results just aren’t there. Which is why I don’t have the confidence. Everyone goes through stretches where they can’t win. I think right now, I just have to persevere.

"I don’t think I’m defending well enough. My defence is not as good as it used to be. And I’m making a lot of mistakes. I don’t have the confidence to rally and I’m rushing to put the point away.

"I look back at my matches recently and those are the things I’m noticing."

Momota Kento after being knocked out of the world championships by Prannoy H.S.
Picture by 2022 Getty Images

The car crash that changed everything

It's been more than two-and-a-half years since Momota beat Viktor Axelsen to win the Malaysian Masters title in Kuala Lumpur, before being involved in a terrifying car accident on his way to the airport.  

The van Momota was travelling in was wrecked, killing the driver. The player was fortunate not to suffer the same fate.

He had been at the top of his game. In 2019, he was simply untouchable. Momota won a record 11 titles, named the BWF's player of year and mathematically qualified for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games based on the points he had amassed.

Following the car crash, Momota was initially cleared by doctors in Malaysia but after returning to Japan, he had problems seeing with his right eye. Further examination revealed a broken eye socket, needing surgery.

With the pandemic triggering the Games' postponement and cancellations of sporting events all around the globe, Momota would not compete again until December 2020 at the All Japans, which he went on to win.

But at Tokyo 2020 in 2021 - where the former world No. 1 had been projected to be one of Japan's surest gold-medal bets - Momota lost his second match, at the hands of unheralded Heo Kwang Hee from the Republic of Korea.

And he just hasn't been quite the same since.

Looking back on his shock elimination at the Games, Momota said, "I felt like I did everything for it, working hard. But it wasn’t good enough as it turns out".

His last title dates back to the Indonesia Masters in November 2021. At the Japan Open, it was the fifth time this season Momota lost in the first round of a tournament.

During the past two weeks in Tokyo and Osaka, tears have been shed when cameras and the eyes of the media have not been on him.

"No, it’s not fun right now. Once you see the view from the top and you start struggling to win, it’s tough. Not enjoying it. But I feel fortunate to still be receiving the support I’m receiving from all kinds of people and because of that, I feel like I can’t run from this and walk out on everyone.

"Having said that, I’m not producing the result I want to. The dilemma, it’s really eating me up. I do tell myself to believe, to play the game of badminton more relaxed to make it easier on me more than anything. But when I step on to the court, I tighten up for some reason. And that’s something I’ve got to change".

Momota is adamant that he will not change his defensive style of play, and the thought of taking a break from the game has never entered his mind.

The 27-year-old wants to rediscover himself by practicing and playing more.

"I don’t even know if that’s possible so I think I just have to suck it up", he said when asked if taking a step away from badminton was something he considered.

"I have an opportunity to keep competing so I think a lot of trial and error, will take it one tournament at a time with specific goals in mind. Hopefully through that, I can find my best form again.

"I never thought about taking time off; I don’t know how many players in badminton take time off. It’s not a bad idea if I could. But it’s probably not very realistic.

"I think you do need to stick to your guns. You have to play to your strengths while addressing other parts of your game. I believe this approach suits me."

Can Momota return to his title-winning ways?
Picture by 2019 Getty Images

Momota's "new me" and room for growth

It seems the harder Momota tries, the tighter the knot becomes.

But he is confident - despite admitting a lack of confidence on the court - that he can get back to topping podiums left, right and centre like he once did, and like newly crowned Olympic and world champion Axelsen is doing right now.

If and when he does recapture his form, though, Momota says it will be a new and improved version of himself, not a rebuilt model of the old version.

Call it Momota 2.0.

"I want to find a new me, one that is much, much better than before. But so many people around me talk about the old me, or the Momota that was.

"I try not to worry about it but because so many people mention it, it does get to me. I try to control myself mentally amid the noise but I’m not there yet."

When you ask him if he can be dominant again, the fire still flickers in his eyes. As forthright as he can be with his current situation - to a point of frailty at times - there is still pride in him, the heart of a champion.

Momota thinks all it might take is just one win to turn the corner, to regain his rhythm.

Will winning be the cure?

"I think there’s every possibility that it could be." Momota said. "Because it’s what I know. I never think I can’t do it. I want to keep trying. I cannot allow myself to break.

"I’m no where near where I want to be, across the board. But I still do think I have room for growth."

GO OLYMPIC. GET ALL THIS.

Free live sport events. Unlimited access to series. Unrivalled Olympic news & highlights.