As Japan’s Kento Momota took apart China’s World No.6 Pengyu Du in the third game of the second singles in the semifinals of the Thomas Cup, the sparse gathering of spectators at the Siri Fort Complex would have realised that they were witnessing the biggest upset in recent years. The mighty Chinese were gunning for their sixth consecutive team-title and had fallen 0-2 down after their World No.2 Chen Long had lost to Kenichi Tago in the opening singles, while Kenichi Hayakawa and Hiroyuki Endo had beaten Biao Chai and Wei Hong.
Similar to the composition of the Indian women’s Uber Cup team, the Japanese men’s team are weak in the third singles and the second doubles. This lack of depth made it imperative that Momota, 20, overcome Pengyu Du, six years his senior.
During the one hour and 25 minute game, Momota showed that he was not overawed by the occasion or the opponent as he guided Japan to their first-ever Thomas Cup final, chomping on the mighty Chinese on his way. Momota had lost the first game narrowly at 23-25, but fought back to take the tie 21-18, 21-14. This was a case of a brave, young challenger, who carried no baggage, placing little value on the reputation of the Chinese.
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Momota is one of the younger Japanese players coming through but he is their brightest star. Friday was not the first time Momota made it a red-letter day for Japanese badminton. Nor was it the first time he had humbled the Chinese. He had trampled over a Chinese to win Japan’s its first ever World Junior Boy’s singles title in 2012. The vanquished opponent in Chiba, Japan, two years ago was China’s Xue Song.
Momota set down a marker with the manner in which he dominated the third game with his jump smashes, speed and agility and a tiring Pengyu Du often found it hard to keep pace.
What Momota said after the win only emphasised that the young Japanese was not scared of the multiple-time champions who will not be able to defend their Thomas Cup title in New Delhi.
“Beating China is nothing special for our generation because it was expected. We have done it at the junior level. Our aim is to be the best in the world,” Momota said. “As we were leading 2-0, I had a chance to play freely and I enjoyed the game. It was my opportunity to become a hero,” Momota said via an interpreter.
South Korea-born badminton legend Park Joo-Bong, who is the head coach of the Japanese team said the win indicated a bright future for Japan.
“This China team was seemingly unbeatable so it was important that we started off well and once we took a 2-0 lead it was essential that Momota wins his game. This is the first time we have beaten China in a team event and it means that we are progressing toward becoming a top badminton nation. I think this is a Golden Generation with players like Kenichi Tago and Momota, who have excelled at the junior level and have been able to carry forward their success to the senior level as well,” Park Joo-Bong said.
Chinese legend Lin Dan — scheduled to play the third singles — could only watch from the sidelines, and head coach Li Yongbo will be seriously worried about China’s dominance being challenged in men’s singles.
The Japanese men, who will now be known as world beaters, chose the biggest stage in team events to end the decade-long dominance of the Chinese.