Naraoka-less Japan confident of reaching semi-finals

Good vibes: Japan’s Kento Momota in a training session for the Asia Team Championships at Setia Alam Convention Centre. — IZZRAFIQ ALIAS/The Star

SHAH ALAM: The withdrawal of men’s singles shuttler Kodai Naraoka from the Asia Team Championships has not dampened the Japanese men’s team’s spirits.

World No. 6 Naraoka was initially set to spearhead the team in the team meet which is set to get under way tomorrow at the Setia City Convention Centre in Shah Alam but had to pull out at the eleventh hour due to fitness concerns.

In his absence, the team will have to rely on world No. 12 Kenta Nishimoto, Koki Watanabe (No. 20) and Kento Momota (No. 40) in the singles.

In the doubles, world No. 15 Akira Koga-Taichi Saito will be Japan’s highest ranked pair in the tournament as 2021 world champions Takuro Hoki-Yugo Kobayashi will not be competing.

Back-up pairs Kenya Mitsuhashi-Hiroki Okamura and Naoki Yamada-Kazuki Shibata make up the rest of the team.

Head coach Park Joo-bong believes that his team are still capable of at least reaching the semi-finals despite missing their top players.

Making the last four will guarantee the team an automatic slot in the prestigious Thomas Cup Finals from April 27-May 5.

“We could not bring our best team this time,” said Joo Bong after overseeing the team’s training session yesterday.

“We selected Naraoka but his condition was not good and he had to pull out.

“Hoki-Kobayashi decided to skip this tournament to focus on their preparations for the European competitions next month.

“We have to make the best of what we have and try to reach the semi-finals.”

Joo-bong also backed Momota, who was surprisingly selected ahead of world No. 18 Kanta Tsuneyama, to justify his inclusion in the team.

Momota has been struggling for some time to rediscover the form that saw him crowned world champion twice in 2018 and 2019 but did show signs of his old form when he captured the World Tour Super 300 Korean Masters in Gwangju last November.

It was the 28-year-old’s first title since winning the 2021 Indonesian Masters.

“Momota won a title after a long time and it gave him lots of confidence,” said Joo-bong.

“He really wants to play in this tournament as he can’t qualify for top tier events due to his world ranking which is quite low.

“He is motivated to get back to his old form and hopefully he can do well in this team meet.”

Japan will face Thailand, Singapore and Myanmar in Group C.

The top two teams in the group will make it through to the quarter-finals.

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