Following the Olympic Games and World Championships, the best event to swipe a medal is the IJF Masters. Acquiring the mass qualification points can be the deciding factor for a place in the Olympic Games for some of these contenders, especially those in tough national head to heads.
Looking immediately at the -48kg category, the glaring absence of the current Masters champion, Shirine BOUKLI (FRA) leaves a huge opportunity open for the rapid climber, Blandine PONT. Earlier this year, Pont sealed a place on the radar with her tremendous win during the Paris Grand Slam, and then continued to blaze a trail in Tel Aviv and Antalya. There are actually a number of national concurrences including those within Serbia, Spain and Israel in this category alone.
Incredibly, we are one year away from the Olympic Games in Paris, and Distria KRASNIQI (KOS) has blown everyone out of the water, transitioning seamlessly from the -48kg category to -52kg, and is leading the charge in Budapest this weekend. Of course, there are some front runners challenging her, and one in particular will have the home crowd advantage; PUPP Reka (HUN). Krasniqi however, does have the odds in her favour regarding this particular opponent, but who she will definitely be looking out for is Uzbekistan’s Diyora KELDIYOROVA, who managed to steal the win in the final of the Tbilisi Grand Slam. Talking of odds, this could be Krasniqi’s fifth IJF Masters title.
The -57kg category remains under charge of athletes outside of the European group, with Pan America and Asia taking the top five seeding positions, however Olympic silver medallist Sarah Leonie CYSIQUE (FRA) is closing in. Nevertheless, the Qazakstan Grand Slam winner is also in the trenches with strong forces; Timna NELSON LEVY (ISR), Nora GJAKOVA (KOS) and Eteri LIPARTELIANI (GEO). Looking further afield there are some serious threats from the likes of Italian youngster Thauany David CAPANNI DIAS, who is steadily making her way up the podium with Grand Prix bronze and silver medals this year, a good day for Capanni Dias could really upset the status quo.
Similarly in the -63kg category we have the usual suspects in the leading lineup; Lucy RENSHALL (GBR), Catherine BEAUCHEMIN-PINARD (CAN) and HORIKAWA Megumi (JPN) are the top three, however they are being chased down by a new generation. During the world championships in Doha we saw junior successes OZBAS Szofi (HUN) and Joanne VAN LIESHOUT (NED) make their mark on the senior stage. Not only a new generation, but double Olympic champion Clarisse AGBEGNENOU (FRA) is still sitting outside the ranking and her world title comeback will give the athletes plenty to prepare for.
Michaela POLLERES (AUT) is the returning champion in the -70kg category following a tremendous performance in Jerusalem six months ago, and subsequently another gold in Tashkent, concluding her current 2023 results with a world bronze. To say that Polleres is one of the most consistent would be an understatement, however she needs to be on her guard, Elizavet TELTSIDOU (GRE) is becoming stronger and a regular on the podium as well, with two grand slam titles to her name this year. The Dutch team have a triple threat with Sanne VAN DIJKE, Hilde JAGER and finally, Kim POLLING. Polling came very close to continuing her Masters legacy in Jerusalem and given her recent return to competition, a fifth place was an incredible feat.
Expectations are there, naturally for the -78kg category, the wide variety of styles make for exciting head to heads. Alice BELLANDI (ITA), Inbar LANIR (ISR), Audrey TCHEUMEO (FRA) and Guusje STEENHUIS (NED) are the cream of the crop in this selection but what is unavoidable for those looking at the inscriptions is the intense entry from Germany. This will absolutely be a race to the finish line when it comes to the Olympic Games and for these women, now is the time to shine if they want to get ahead of their rivals. Before the Tokyo Games, Anna-Maria WAGNER was arguably a sure starter, but now with Alina BOEHM and new to the senior scene, Anna Monta OLEK on her tail ranking #8 and #12, the game begins.
Concluding the women’s categories is the +78kg weight class. Understandably for number one seed Raz HERSHKO (ISR), she has some personal goals regarding major championships like this. It was an emotional bronze medal win in Jerusalem in front of a home crowd, and a fierce victory in Doha to ensure she went home with a medal. The expectation is great for Hershko as she has rarely left a tournament without a medal since 2021, but she has strong competition testing her will. Already in the top eight seeds, France have a triple offence with Romane DICKO, Julia TOLOFUA and Lea FONTAINE, creating the best kind of headache for the French team in terms of their Olympic selection.
As the Masters event dictates, we are sure to see the best in the world challenge one another for glory and now, the all important points.
Author: Thea Cowen