TOKYO/SEOUL, July 29 (Reuters) - Yoo Hyo-jeo, a South Korean marketing specialist based in Tokyo, wept with joy when she watched her countryman Heo Kwang-hee knock the world's number one men's singles player out of the Olympics.
Heo, ranked 38, smashed his way to a stunning 21-15 21-19 victory against Japanese badminton hero Kento Momota on Wednesday.
The 25-year-old Korean shuttler, who lives and trains in Seoul, overwhelmed Momota several times with sharply angled smashes that his opponent was unable to counter, sometimes hitting Momota himself before the Japanese player could dodge the powerful shots.
"I was really surprised by Heo Kwang-hee's dazzling skills," said Yoo, 33. "Every time he succeeded in attacks, he shouted out full of energy and I loved his spirit."
"I am no expert to say whether he will win gold but I just hope he does well till the end of the Games and continues to be a healthy athlete -- I will continue to support him from afar.”
Heo, who took up badminton in 2004 and began to focus on singles during middle school, has said it was one of his life's ambitions to win a gold in Tokyo.
He has a tough road ahead of him with players such as Denmark's Viktor Axelsen and Anders Antonsen at the top of their game, but his performance against Momota shows that ranking tables are not everything.
"Heo's game was strategic and he played hungrily, without giving any easy points," Niklas Karvonen, 29, a community director from Tokyo, said. "To be honest it was a bit heartbreaking to watch the game as he was my favourite."
From Tokyo to India, Momota's fans are stunned by the loss.
Momota's journey to Tokyo 2020 was fraught with personal and professional setbacks, including contracting COVID-19. The 26-year-old was embroiled in an illegal gambling scandal months before the Rio Games in 2016, and banned by the Nippon Badminton Association.
Then world number two, Momota was excised from the league tables and by the time he got back on the court in 2017 he was ranked 282nd. With a 39-match unbeaten streak, he clawed his way back to the top.
"Kento was touted as the next big thing after Lin Dan and Lee Chong Wei," Vaibhav Manocha, 31, a research analyst from Gurgaon, India, said. "He has a nice fairytale around him and everyone was hyped to see him get that gold."
Still, Manocha and other fans are sure they will see Momota -- dubbed badminton's comeback kid by some media -- rise again.
"He's been abandoned, then protected by a god," Hitoshi Ohori, Momota's coach from his Tomioka High School days, told a local sports daily. "I think he'll probably continue living that kind of life, like he is driven by some divine power.”
"If he's able to help enliven everyone in the country, beyond the Olympics, then that's the real thing that matters."
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