All England Open Badminton Championships: Kento Momota using event as Olympic curtain-raiser

By David McDaidBBC Olympic sports reporter
Kento Momota
Kento Momota won the World Championships in 2018 and 2019
2021 All England Open Badminton Championships
Venue: Utilita Arena Birmingham Dates: 17-21 March
Coverage: Watch live coverage on the BBC Red Button, iPlayer & BBC Sport website and app from 17 March

This time last year, Kento Momota was recovering from surgery on a fractured eye socket and wondering whether he would be able to play badminton again.

A year on, the Japanese world number one will be in Birmingham aiming to win his second All England Open title - one of the most prestigious events in his sport.

The tournament will be only his second since January 2020 when he was involved in a fatal car crash.

Back then he had just begun his season by winning the Malaysia Masters when, on his way to the airport, the bus he was travelling in collided with a lorry.

The driver of his vehicle was killed, but Momota and other passengers escaped with minor injuries.

It was only later that the 26-year-old discovered the extent of the damage to his eye after experiencing double vision on the practice court.

"For me, getting through that crash was a massive thing; my outlook on life really changed after that," Momota told BBC Sport.

"I stopped taking for granted the everyday things that I was able to do in life.

"I never really thought about quitting the sport but I did worry that I would be left unable to play it anymore.

"I was also able to rediscover the joy in badminton."

It took Momota three months to be able to play again and although he said he would have done whatever it took to make the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, they were eventually postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Momota's Games debut was delayed - and not for the first time.

Months before the 2016 Rio Olympics he was banned from playing by the Nippon Badminton Association after he admitted to gambling in casinos in Tokyo. In Japan casinos are illegal - as is gambling in almost all forms.

Then, as now, he was among the favourites to win the Olympic gold medal.

"Since I was a child it's been a stage I've dreamed of gracing so I'm really happy to be getting the chance to play there now," he said of this summer's rescheduled Games.

"So many people have helped me and had my back throughout my career so I want to give it everything I've got."

And as well as the individuals who guided him through the pain of his gambling ban and his recovery from car crash injuries, he also wants to help heal an entire region of Japan.

Momota went to a high school renowned for its badminton programme in Fukushima prefecture - an area now synonymous with the devastating earthquake that hit 10 years ago this month.

Fukushima 10 years on: How the 'triple disaster' unfolded

At the time of the disaster, Momota was in Indonesia playing at a youth tournament but his school was located near a nuclear power plant which went into meltdown as a result of damage.

Although not a Fukushima native, it is a place he holds in deep affection and he returned there last summer to set up a training base.

"It's a special place I consider home," Momota said.

"I thought that by going there and training with young players it would be in some way therapeutic for me.

"I also went to show respect to my old teachers as a sort of symbol that I was leaving there refreshed into the world again.

"It's 10 years since the disaster there and now we have the Olympics. So if I can shine on that stage I hope that I can perhaps bring some cheer to all the people who have suffered there."

Despite feeling physically back to full fitness, Momota admits to still harbouring some mental "uncertainties".

"I still have concerns [over whether] my level of play will be good enough. I still feel some nervousness like wondering whether I can train properly," the three-time world champion said.

This week's All England Open will serve to perhaps allay any remaining doubts.

At the very least it will help him see what he needs to work on to be ready for his home Olympics, where the hopes of the Japanese nation will be pinned on him.

"I don't really feel the pressure. I'll just do the best I can and not listen to any other voices around me," he said.

"I just want to go for that gold medal to grow the profile of badminton in my country.

"But I also want to do it for the people of Fukushima, as well as all the people who have been there for me in my career."

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