Momota, the 'gambler' looking to strike it rich

Kicked off Japan’s badminton team for the Rio Olympics for gambling at an illegal casino, Kento Momota is keen on making up lost ground.

At Jakarta, all eyes were on Momota; he was watched with envy by the Chinese players and with admiration by the Malaysians.   -  GETTY IMAGES

As the shuttle stood hesitantly on the net cord before falling in, Kento Momota wore a 'oh-no' look on his face. It was just a training session at the GBK Istora Stadium ahead of Sunday’s badminton opener at the 18th Asian Games but the Japanese star, the new men’s singles World champion, appeared keen to be perfect every time.

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Two years ago, a few months before the Rio Olympics, Momota found his world come crashing down. The World No. 2 then, he was banned from badminton for gambling at casinos in Japan - illegal in his country. The 15-month ban cost him a place in the Rio team and a possible Olympic gold too.

Now, the 23-year-old looks to be in a hurry, keen to make up for the lost time. At Jakarta, all eyes were on Momota; he was watched with envy by the Chinese players and with admiration by the Malaysians.

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“No, no…no English,” said Momota when Sportstar put a question to him as he finished his training session. But another Japanese, Olympian Shintaro Ikeda, helped this writer break the wall and offered a peep into the World champion’s life.

“He did not allow the suspension to break him, he kept training hard, even teaching the juniors and training with them,” said Ikeda, a former doubles Worlds bronze medalist. “It was heartbreaking for him but he had the support of his company NTT and the people. And he has now come back strongly.”

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A reason to worry

At number four, Momota is now close to his best world ranking and that has made a few Indians uncomfortable. K. Srikanth, the world No. 1 three months ago and now the best Indian men's player here, is one of them.

“I’m not really worried about the other players, all I’m worried about is my performance. I’m only thinking about how I play,” said Srikanth, the World No. 8 now, when one specifically asked about the threat posed by Momota.

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Srikanth has lost twice to Momota in the last two months, in the Malaysian and Indonesian Opens, and one could feel the strain as the Indian spoke.

With the one-time gambler looking to strike it rich here, the others surely have a reason to worry.