While women’s singles badminton is throbbing with strong competition among more than half-a-dozen top-level competitors, men’s singles badminton had one clear and distant leader in 2019 – Kento Momota. He was the most successful shuttler in this division in 2018 as well but only got better in the following 12 months.
He won the World Championship and Asian Championship again and earned the two titles that escaped his grasp the previous year – All England Championships and BWF World Tour Finals. In all, Momota captured 12 titles in 2019, a feat not even managed by the legendary Lee Chong Wei or Lin Dan. His domination was complete and peerless.
Lack of competition
When one looks at 2018, it becomes clear that there were only three players who seemed capable of stopping the juggernaut of Momota. One was Lee Chong Wei but he had to retire after recovering from cancer. The other two were Shi Yuqi of China and Anthony Sinisuka Ginting of Indonesia.
It was the latter that prevented Momota from winning the Asian Games Gold as well by defeating him in the 2018 edition of the multilateral event. Shi, on the other hand, stunned everyone by getting the better of the World Champion in the 2018 BWF World Tour Finals.
Of these two, only Ginting was able to put up a challenge in 2019 to the supremacy of the Japanese. Shi Yuqi, though he did reach the final of Asian Championships, spent most of the year struggling with injuries and form.
But even the Indonesian ended up losing three World Tour events’ finals to Momota. However, in each of them, the 2-time World Champion had to battle it out over three games to clinch the title. The one tournament where Ginting did manage to get one over his rival was in the French Open where he defeated him in the quarter-final.
Still, most of the time, the only challenge in front of Momota was his own fitness and endurance. This is an area where Japanese players excel and Momota exemplifies this trait better than others. No wonder, he ended the year reigning supreme over the division.
Most people who have seen Indonesia’s Anthony Ginting in action know that he is possibly the most likely challenger to Momota in years to come. A highly talented shuttler, the 23-year old is very fleet-footed and therefore a great retriever. He is also very skilful and able to play some delightful shots.
As stated above, all three finals he played against Momota went into three games. This was no coincidence. The final of the BWF World Tour Finals saw the two competitors clashing in what was one of the best matches of the year.
Momota, who relies on long rallies and solid defence was made to work hard for every point as most of his shots came back. Despite the World Champion attempting to play aggressively, Ginting had all the answers. But then, the long rallies that Momota forces his opponents to play started tiring out Ginting.
In the deciding third game, he simply faded away as Momota gained ascendancy and raced to the title. But this match proved once again that against the Indonesian, the world’s no. 1 player needs to raise his game to another level.
Chou also puts up a fight
Another top-class match in 2019 featured Momota taking on Chinese Taipei’s Chou Tien Chen in the final of Fuzhou China Open. Most expected this to be a one-sided affair and the World Champion to ease his way to another victory. But Chou surprised everyone by putting his opponent under a lot of pressure.
Here too, it was the perseverance of Momota and his inexhaustible reserves of energy that allowed him to overcome the challenge and win the title. It would be interesting to see if Chou can be more consistent in 2020.
China’s biggest hope currently in men’s singles division is Shi Yuqi. But, as mentioned earlier, he was out of form. The man who would be defending his Olympic crown this year, Chen Long, endured another tough 12 months as he managed to win just one title, the same one he had won in 2018 – French Open.
In April though, everyone thought old times had returned when he faced Lin Dan in the final of Malaysia Open and lost. But this was an exception than the rule. Lin Dan’s decline at the international level continued as he failed to do much else. One wonders whether he would even be able to make the cut for the Tokyo Games.
Biggest upset of 2019
Lastly, one must mention the fairytale story of Lee Cheuk Yiu, a little-known player from Hong Kong who at the age of 23, stunned everyone by winning his home World Tour event – Hong Kong Open. He only made it to the main draw after getting through the qualifying round.
He defeated fancied players such as Kidambi Srikanth, 2018 World Tour Finals Champion Shi Yuqi and 2017 World Champion Viktor Axelsen. In the final, he went toe-to-toe with Ginting who was the favourite to break his own title drought.
The match proved to be a nail-biting one as Lee started playing like a world-beater. In the end, the match ended when the chair umpire made a controversial call judging Ginting to have crossed the net with one of his shots and gave the match, and the trophy to Lee Cheuk Yiu. Even the best scriptwriters would have been called too optimistic writing a tale like this.