For the third time in the last four editions of the Sudirman Cup, Japan finished runners-up at the World Mixed Team Championships. While that was a hard fact to swallow for head coach Park Joo Bong, he sought consolation in the resistance his team put up, compared to the 2015 and 2019 editions when his team lost 3-0 to China.
Park speaks to BWF about the recent Sudirman Cup campaign, Kento Momota’s troubled comeback since his car accident, and injury worries to the Uber Cup team:
How do you see Japan’s performance at the Sudirman Cup?
This time our team doesn’t have some of its best players, because many of them were injured after the Olympics, like (Nozomi) Okuhara; in doubles, (Yuki) Fukushima and (Sayaka) Hirota are not here; (Wakana) Nagahara is also injured, so our team did show good fight in their absence. Especially (Akane) Yamaguchi, she performed very well against Olympic champion Chen Yu Fei. So her performance is a good sign for tournaments in Denmark and France.
This time our team didn’t have our best players but we reached the final. So I’m happy. Last time it was 3-0 but at least this time we won a match.
Kento Momota appeared to run out of steam against Shi Yu Qi in the final. What really happened?
After his loss at the Olympics, Momota was shocked. Our team also was shocked. Anyway, he returned to training and this tournament. We didn’t have a choice, Momota had to play against China. He’d played many matches continuously. After the Olympics, he played well in the two matches against Lee Zii Jia and Chou Tien Chen, but after that he was tired. Before the final against China, we asked him if he could play or not, in terms of his physical condition. This time he was our captain, so he had that responsibility. I think he was tired, but he wanted to play, so we put him in the lineup. Shi Yu Qi also knew he was tired. In the first time game he played at very high speed, so Momota found it very hard to follow that speed.
Do you see him getting back to the kind of form he was in before the accident?
I think he’s getting better. The All England was his first tournament after the accident. He lost in the quarterfinals. At the Olympics there was too much pressure and he couldn’t play well, he lost in the group stage. He was shocked. His confidence went down. But of course he wanted to keep fighting.
At the Sudirman Cup in his first match against Lee Zee Jia, he was 0-6. I could see his face, he had no confidence at all. But after that he came back and he beat Lee Zee Jia and Chou Tien Chen. I think, physically he’s tired but on the matter of confidence he needs to come back. Anyway, at the top level on the physical side, to play every day for four-five days, it’s very tough for him.
Would you say his problem is physical, or is it psychological?
At the moment it’s both physical and psychological. He has still not fully recovered confidence. He’s gaining confidence, but there’s still some way to go.
Does he have to change his game?
It looks like now every opponent knows Momota is the target and they have analysed him well. So he has to change tactics and gameplan.
This time Shi Yu Qi and Chou Tien Chen were tough rivals, and of course Viktor (Axelsen) and (Anders) Antonsen are there, and Korea’s Heo Kwanghee also shows good fighting spirit, so it looks like there are more rivals now. And they are up at the moment. Compared to them, Momota’s still not at his best as he used to be.
Japan are defending champions in the Uber Cup. How is the team shaping up?
It’s very tough for us. Okuhara is injured, Hirota is not there, Nagahara is not there, so it’s very tricky. Chiharu (Shida) will also find it quite tough to play the Uber Cup. Shida and Matsuyama were playing well and they would have got their chance, but Shida is injured and maybe she cannot play.