Kodai Naraoka deserves his flowers for the way he’s come on in the last 12 months.
It was at the Singapore Open last year that the Japanese star thrusted himself into the global badminton limelight from relative obscurity via a then fairytale run to the final.
When he touched down at the Changi International Airport in July, Naraoka was the 43rd-ranked men’s singles player in the world. A week later, he left runner-up to Anthony Sinisuka Ginting, having taken down, among others, fifth seed Jonatan Christie and Prannoy H. S. on his way to the title match.
He has qualified for another two since – including January’s Super 1000 Malaysia Open he lost to Viktor Axelsen – scooped the Eddy Choong Most Promising Player of the Year award, usurped Kento Momota, Kenta Nishimoto and Kanta Tsuneyama to become Japan’s men’s singles lead, and shot up to a career-high world No.3.
“My starting point. It was here that I started my path to victory,” recalled the 21-year-old after sidestepping Priyanshu Rajawat 21-17 21-16 in the second round today. “Everything was amazing, I still remember with great satisfaction my (7-21 21-18 21-15 Round of 16) come-from-behind win over Christie.
“I was rather inexperienced at that time but in the ensuing months, I’ve been able to accumulate a ton of experience at multiple tournaments and become among the world’s top-ranked players.
“I’ve become more mature. I’m especially pleased with my ability to stay calm and orchestrate my play on court. But it all started here, my run to the final made me believe.”
That belief over time turned into unshakeable self-confidence – Naraoka now genuinely accepts he is indeed among the best.
“At the beginning, I didn’t feel I was at that level. However, I slowly got the hang of playing against elite opponents and now I do feel confident against the cream of the crop,” said the Aomori native.
He faces one of them next – in the shape of Shi Yu Qi – in the quarterfinals today. Despite an inferior 4-0 record, with the latest defeat coming in three games just three weeks ago in Suzhou at the Sudirman Cup, Naraoka is unfazed about relaunching his attempt to topple the former world No.2.
“He’s a strong opponent but I have confidence I will beat him,” enthused Naraoka, before expanding on his current psyche.
“The way I look at it, men’s singles is so evenly balanced I could easily lose every match. So why not believe, focus on giving my all in each battle and try to outsmart my rival?
“I’m focused on the here and now. That’s my strength.”
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