The Tel Aviv Grand Slam came to a conclusion over the weekend as Israeli judokas were able to capture four medals during the competition, finishing just behind Georgia and France in the medal rankings.
While the blue-and-white contingent had an overall successful run at the opening Grand Slam of the year ahead of the Tokyo Olympics slated for this summer, there were some disappointments as well.
However, the headliner was Iranian Saied Mollaei, who won silver while representing Mongolia as he competed in Israel much to the chagrin of his birth country.
On the first day of the tournament, Timna Nelson Levy took home the gold in the women’s under-57kg category and Gili Cohen won silver in under-52kg.
Day two saw Tohar Butbol win a bronze medal in under-73kg through the repechage after falling in his quarterfinal bout while Peter Paltchik in the under-100kg captured a silver medal on the third and final day.
On the other side of the scale, Ori Sasson, the bronze medalist at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics in the over-100kg category along with Sagi Muki the 2019 World Champion in under-81kg were eliminated in their opening bouts, which were major blows in the Israeli camp, while Raz Hershko in the women’s over-78kg couldn’t score enough points to punch her ticket to the summer games in Tokyo.
Ahead of the tournament, everyone was looking forward to and hoping that the final in the under-81kg would feature Sabra Muki and Mollaei, who is arguably the top judoka in the division. However, once Muki fell to Belgian Sami Chouchi, all the eyes were on Mollaei to see if he would be able to finish at the top of the podium in the Holy Land.
The Iranian successfully maneuvered his way through to the final, where he fell via Ippon to Sharofidin Boltaboev from Uzbekistan.
Israel Judo Association chairman Moshe Ponti explained that despite not winning gold, all in all, Mollaei was satisfied with his visit to Israel.
“The medal was Saeid Mollaei’s first after a long time since having last been on the podium. He felt very comfortable and wanted to win gold, but he did the best that he could and that was very exciting. Every time that I see him and speak to him we immediately hug. He’s an athlete at the highest level and just a true high-quality person.”
Mollaei spoke about the tournament from his point of view.
“It went really well other than the final and hopefully next time will be even better. I am very happy that I won my first medal in Tel Aviv and the next time that will be a gold one. I am an athlete and not a politician. I am very happy that I came to Israel and I want to thank everyone who supported me here as well as the Israeli Judo Association and Moshe Conti, in particular, who helped me along the way.”
Nelson Levy will be heading to the Tokyo Olympics, as the 26-year old’s gold medal win over Sarah Leonie Cysique from France by Ippon just seconds into the match solidified her standing as the top Israeli women’s judoka.
This was the first gold medal at a Grand Slam for Nelson Levy after taking first place at the 2019 Grand Prix in Tel Aviv, as well as at the Agadir Grand Prix in 2018.
The daughter of American Olim, Nelson Levy was overwhelmed by capturing gold.
“It’s incredible to win gold, especially here in Israel. Of course it’s disappointing that there were no fans in the stands, but we feel their love. It’s just great to win in the country’s first Grand Slam and I defeated an opponent that I had lost to in the past. I’m happy that there was a different ending this time around.”
Paltchik, who took a silver medal after losing in the gold medal bout to Dutchman Michael Korrel via waza-ari, reflected on his achievement.
“This was my first silver medal since an injury to my shoulder, after which I had surgery. This was following the 2016 Olympics and since then I have brought the “new” Peter to light both from a physical and mental standpoint as I hadn’t lost a final. I always go for “all-in” so it’s tough for me to lose, especially due to the fact that this was at home. But I know how important this is and how much I love doing what I do.”
Butbol, who won a bronze medal with a victory over Lasha Shavdatuashvili from Georgia, had mixed feelings about his accomplishment.
“On one hand, it’s rough having lost by ippon, but on the other I am happy with the final result and I hope that this will continue to push me forward as I give it all towards Tokyo.”
Finally, Muki brushed off his early defeat as he looked at the bigger picture.
“The most important goal is the Olympics. It’s upsetting that I lost here at home because I wanted to do the best that I could. I’ll take a look at the match over the next few days to understand what happened and prepare for the summer in Tokyo.”