Okuhara, Momota take a bow as they carry Japan's new dream

Japanese shuttler Nozomi Okuhara says her 1.55m stature is not a drawback as it aids her speed. She and Kento Momota have redefined Japan's role on the world badminton circuit.
Japanese shuttler Nozomi Okuhara says her 1.55m stature is not a drawback as it aids her speed. She and Kento Momota have redefined Japan's role on the world badminton circuit.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • If Japan's startling rise as a major force in badminton is the sport's current feel-good story, then the reason behind one of its chief protagonists opting to bow at courtside after matches is just as welcome.

"The match is not just about me. It's about the court, the officials and the opponent, so I have to give my thanks to everyone for making it possible," Nozomi Okuhara said at the ongoing All England Championships.

Okuhara, 20, and compatriot Kento Momota, 21, caused a stir in December when they won the women's and men's singles titles at the year-ending Superseries Finals in Dubai, raising interest in the Olympic year as the nation bids for its first gold.

At the helm are these two bright and gifted athletes.

Okuhara entered 20 events last year and showed her unique stamina to lift the prestigious Superseries title without dropping a game, including impressive wins over world No. 1 Carolina Marin and world No. 3 Saina Nehwal.

Okuhara, from Omachi City, says her 1.55m stature poses few problems.

Instead, she uses her physicality "to force errors from my opponent, but it's all about my speed".

Momota's game is all about flair and creativity. "I just go out there to have fun on court," he says.

The pair have etched similar paths since both won 2012 world junior titles.

At the All England Championships this week, they even played on adjacent courts.

"I couldn't concentrate, I am always excited for him," Okuhara admitted. "We definitely feed off each other."

While the young tyros admit that their Superseries Finals wins boosted badminton's profile in Japan, both realised that they must now be regarded as elite players who have gone from being hunters to the hunted.

"There are lots of people who want to beat me now, they know my style," Momota admitted.

"Against people who are lower ranked than me, I try to focus on beating them rather than relaxing."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 12, 2016, with the headline 'Okuhara, Momota take a bow as they carry Japan's new dream'. Print Edition | Subscribe