Momota Kento is used to dealing with pressure.
But the expectations ahead of his return to international competition at the All England Open pale in comparison with his pressure to win gold at the Tokyo Olympics this summer.
In an interview with Laureus, Momota confessed that "the pressure is huge".
"I’d like to turn that into a positive, and go into the Olympics with a productive degree of pressure and tension."
The Japanese badminton ace last played an international match on 12 January 2020, when he clinched the Malaysia Masters title in Kuala Lumpur.
On his way to the airport to fly home, he was involved in a fatal car accident that subsequently left him requiring surgery and spending most of last year recovering from the ordeal.
The 26-year-old did manage to defend his national title in December, and was planning to compete in the three World Tour events in Bangkok in January. However, he tested positive for COVID-19 just days before the tournament and had to postpone his international return.
Momota's incredible journey in 2020 has also earned him a nomination for the Laureus World Comeback of the Year Award.
The star shuttler admitted that he is feeling nervous ahead of playing his first international tournament in 14 months.
"It’ll be half nerves and half excitement. There’s a part of me that’s worried even as I practise now, but I want to play to win since I’m going." - Momota Kento
The double world champion has certainly not lost any of his hunger for victory.
Prior to his accident, he won an incredible 11 tournaments in 2019.
It was a stellar season that saw him become the first Japanese men's singles player to win the All England Open, then he defended his Asian Championships title and went on to become only the fourth player in history to clinch back-to-back world championship titles. It was no surprise that he was named BWF Best Male Player of the Year.
But 2020 was not the year Momota had envisaged. First came his accident that led to surgery, then the global pandemic which brought the world to a halt and forced the postponement of the Olympic Games.
Despite all this, the Japanese athlete has not only found his way back onto the court but is as motivated as ever to emerge victorious on his Olympic debut.
"Allow me to say I’m 100% confident about the gold medal." - Momota Kento
Read the full transcript of an exclusive interview with Laureus.
Momota is nominated alongside Daniel Bard (USA), Alex Morgan (USA), Max Parrot (CAN), Mikaela Shiffrin (USA) and Alex Smith (USA) for the Laureus World Comeback of the Year Award.
Question: How do you feel ahead of playing in the All England Open Badminton Championships.
Momota Kento (MK): It’ll be my first tournament overseas in 14 months, so I’m sure I’ll be nervous. It’ll be half nerves and half excitement. There’s a part of me that’s worried even as I practice now, but I want to play to win since I’m going.
Q: You haven’t played an international tournament in quite some time now. How important is it for you to test yourself against your global rivals?
MK: There’s a lot to gain and reflect on when you play at a high level, so even after the tournament is over, so my practices will be focused and my stance will probably be different as well, so I’ll give it my all for the tournament. I think you end up having regrets if you’re fearful or unsure, so I plan to do the best that I can, and find out what I need to work on.
Q: 2020 must have been a tough year for you with the accident. Then COVID also presented many challenges. What were your learnings from this situation?
MK: Everyday, it was normal for me to practise badminton and play in matches, and that was the normal flow of things. Then I got into the accident and what used to be normal was no longer normal. I couldn’t see people because of COVID and tournaments weren’t being held, and it made me realize how truly happy I was to be able to just do normal things.
Q: You were involved in an accident at what was scheduled to be the start of an Olympic year. What were the first thoughts that went through your mind at the time?
MK: At the time of the accident, when it first happened, I wasn’t so concerned about the Olympics. I was more concerned about whether I’d be able to continue the sport.
Q: There must have been many challenges on your road to recovery, and COVID presented additional challenges. What were you thinking about during your physical therapy sessions?
MK: My main goal is of course the Olympics. My biggest goal for the year was the Olympics, so I was adjusting my goal toward that goal, to be able to return to my pre-accident performance. But it was really challenging, frustrating and difficult for me to not do anything for two months, and to deal with the effects from the accident during physical therapy. It was also really tough mentally.
Q: Your return to competitive sport and your win at the All-Japan Badminton Championships had a great impact for all your fans. What were your goals and motivation going into this tournament?
MK: It was my first match in a long time, so I wanted to give it my all. Of course, I wanted to win, but even if I couldn’t, I wanted to be sure there were no regrets. That was my mindset going into the tournament.
Q: The expectation for you to win gold at Tokyo 2020 is huge. How are you coping with that mental pressure?
MK: People mention the Olympics and the gold medal as the Olympics approach, so to be honest, the pressure is huge. People wouldn’t make such comments if they weren’t expecting me to win, so I’d like to turn that into a positive, and go into the Olympics with a productive degree of pressure and tension.
Q: How confident are you about winning the gold medal?
MK: I definitely want to win if I’m going to be playing. Well, I don’t think you can become a champion if you’re hesitant, so allow me to say I’m 100% confident about the gold medal!
Q: What do you do to train yourself psychologically?
For me, I challenge myself to practise the things I don’t like or I’m not good at, and go into it with a strong will. I believe I can build up my willpower by going one step beyond my limits.
Q: Recently, we’ve seen an increase in Japanese athletes using their visibility and power to communicate to bring about change in society. What are your thoughts about this trend?
MK: I myself believe that sport really has a very strong influence on society. It can make people feel good and excited, so I’d like to become an athlete that can influence people in that way.
Q: Athletes who play at the top level of their sport are often expected to help increase the number of athletes in their sport and to provide an environment for the next generation of athletes to experience the sport. Do you feel this kind of pressure or expectation?
MK: I’ve become more aware (of the expectations) recently. While badminton continues to gain awareness as a sport in Japan, the reality is that I don’t think anything has really changed in the badminton world. I truly hope that I myself can bring about some change.
Q: We’ve noticed that you actively post on your social media accounts such as YouTube and Twitter, about “wanting to allow children to dream and hope” “wanting to play badminton with children”. What prompted you to use social media as a means of communication?
MK: With the spread of COVID, I realised the importance of using social media as a way to communicate when you can’t meet up in person, so I’ve been using it a lot.
The excitement of the two kids that I played badminton with, and the comments from the fans have been positive as well. So as long as there are people like that, I’d like to make the time for as many opportunities like that as possible.
Q: It will be 10 years since the Great East Japan Earthquake. You spend your middle school and high school years in Fukushima. Is there a message about the earthquake and tsunami that you would like to share with the world as we mark the 10 year anniversary?
MK: It seems like such a long time ago but actually it hasn’t been that long. And at the same time it seems like it’s only been a short time but yet a lot of time has passed. I get the impression that as time passes, the seriousness and desperation of the time is slowly fading away in people. Every year as we approach March 11, there’s a lot of news about how many years it’s been. But that’s not the point. There are still many who are struggling with their lives, and I feel strongly that we shouldn’t allow it to fade away.
Q: Is there anything you’re planning to do in Fukushima or the other areas?
MK: Of course, I wish I could go there in person. But if I can’t, I feel like there’s a lot I can give to Fukushima where I lived during secondary and high school through social media and such, by winning and leaving a record. I hope to be able to give back by getting results, even if I can’t be there in person.
Q: One of your main rivals, Chou Tien Chen uses belly-dancing as part of his training routine. Do you have any unusual training methods?
MK: Nothing in particular that’s unique or different. I really like YouTube, so I spend a lot of time watching matches. I watch videos of matches as if I’m watching a great drama.
I watch a lot of Lin Dan’s matches because he’s left handed like me. He’s so calm and collected during a match. I also observed the variation in his shuttle placement and imitated them to make them my own.
Q: Which was your most memorable match against Lin Dan?
MK: Definitely the first match. I was really nervous for my first match with him. His half of the court seemed really small and it was pretty intense. His aura and presence was just incredible. And the reaction of the spectators when he entered the arena made you realize he truly was a superstar.
Q: Do you have any memories with him off the court?
MK: Actually, it’s only been to greet each other in passing and not really a conversation, but I definitely tend to watch if he’s practicing close by and there was a lot for me to learn from him even just before he retired. His stance toward badminton was amazing, even after he’d passed his peak.
Q: How do you feel about being nominated for the Laureus World Comeback of the Year Award?
MK: To be honest, I didn’t think I’d be selected. I’m not very good with English, so I didn’t know what was written and I began to wonder what it was all about when people started to congratulate me. I finally realized what an amazing award it is now, after having people tell me about it. (laughing)
Q: What are your goals for 2021 and your dreams beyond the year?
MK: I think the Olympics are going to happen and since it’ll be 10 years since the Great East Japan Earthquake, I feel like it’s almost destiny, and I’d like to go for the win. In 2016, there were a lot of people I let down in 2016, so I hope to be able to give people enough excitement and happiness for 2 Olympics. It would be great if the number of people playing badminton increases as a result of me leaving a good record. And in the future, it’d be great to have my own arena, a place where I can coach young boys and girls who want to become world champions.