France wins the New York Open Team Championship
France’s outstanding player award winner Benjamin Darbelet anchored a French team that defeated two-time defending champion Germany at the third annual New York Open Team Judo Tournament at the New York Athletic Club on March 3, 2013. For 2013 the team tournament was expanded from four to six teams: two-time defending champion Germany, USA, France, Russia, Canada and Brazil. In the week leading up to the tournament the Brazilian team encountered visa problems and was forced to withdraw. In response, the New York Open organizing committee pressed a second US team into action named “Team B”. With predictable judo irony USA’s B Team took the bronze and outperformed USA’s Team A which finished fifth -- sparking the US Teams’ coach Jimmy Pedro to rename the B squad “Team B+.”
The victorious French won $7,000 of NYAC first-place prize money and Germany’s runner-up prize money was $3,000. The $10,000 of prize money represents the largest purse ever awarded at a North American judo event.
The German team came into the day geared up to score a three peat as they were captained by Toni Lettner, a two-time NY Open gold medal winner (when the Tournament was an individual event). Though retired, Tony chose this year’s team event to compete one more time (at 90kg) and scored a victory over Timur Galeev of Russia.
In the team competition format an individual victory by full point earns the victor's team 10 points, a wazari (or half score) earns 7 and a yuko (or quarter score ) earns the victor's team 5 points. The French started their day slowly, squeezing by Canada 27-20 in a match where they dropped their first two heavyweight contests by ippons and thus quickly fell behind 20-0. Darbelet got 10 points back against Canada’s McCrandle with a booming ippon (sode tsuri komi goshi) inspiring Adrien Bourguignon to pick up 7 points against Canada’s Etienne Briand, setting up a rubber match between lightweights Julien Ottaviani of France and Canada’s Patrick Gagne which ended with the Frenchman lofting the Canadian with an uchimata for ippon. France then lost to the USA’s Team A 22-20 despite Bourguignon and Ottaviani each contributing ippons (20 points) against Americans Bobby Lee and Brad Bolen. The young American 2012 Olympic representative Kyle Vashkulat (-100kg) had opened the scoring with his now-patented o-uchi gari (minor inner reap) throw for a 10 point ippon. For the judo enthusiasts assembled in the NYAC’s 6th floor gym this throw was a highlight moment which Vashkulat repeated (again for ippon) in the following round against Russia’s Artur Khushpita. To see ashi waza (foot techniques) demonstrated with deft coordination by a big man is one of the joys of judo but when they flow from a 22-year old American with the bulk of his judo career ahead of him the joy is doubled. Fellow Olympian, NYAC sponsored athlete and USA team anchor Travis Stevens salted away the USA Team A’s win over eventual Champion France in a much-anticipated show down against Benjamin Darbelet. Stevens was competing at his fighting weight while Darbelet was fighting up to 81Kg. Stevens outgripped and clearly was more the aggressor in this contest as Darbelet picked up two penalties and delivered the 5 yuko points to Stevens’s USA Team A. This struggle between judokas with long-term track records is one of the rewards of the Team Tournament aspect to the New York Open for these two great players would be unlikely to find other competitive chances to play. Clearly they each relished the opportunity as did the assembled judo crowd.
In a team tournament defined by a competitively even field, only the Russians lost all their matches. Eventual Bronze medal winners USA Team B won the day’s opening round against Russia before being crushed by the Germans 35-7. USA Team B’s lone 7 points were scored by lightweight Aaron Kunihiro in the final match. Kunihiro played passionately all day and as a true lightweight who normally fights at -60kg “Kuni” had his hands full all day in the 66 kg category. Kunihiro’s USA Team B fell to France 30-10 with the only win coming from local New York hero Shintaro Higashi against France’s Sylvain Potard in the Open weight category. In what became Team B’s decisive match Higashi was bombed by Canada’s Akinori Honda ( two time All Japan Championship medalist), before Team B’s Kensuke Moriyama returned the favor. Middleweight Salama Salem secured a hard-fought draw against Canada’s Scott McCrandle before New Yorker Anthony Vennitti pulled off a 10 point outstanding ippon against Etienne Briand. In Team Tournament play there is no golden score to resolve a tie at the expiration of the regulation five-minute match and as a result a “hiki waki” or draw is more than a Pyrrhic victory for the combatants as a non-score can be a major component in a close match. Such was the case in the Salem-McCrandle match.
Afterwards Canada still had a chance to climb to bronze against USA Team B when Aaron Kunihiro faced off against Canada’s veteran Patrick Gagne. Kunihiro was a whirlwind from the first exchange, never permitting Gagne to settle into any gripping sequence. Kuni picked up a minor score before whipping underneath to a left ko-uchi gari attack which Gagne tried to reverse/counter and in so doing made the resulting ippon more pronounced.
USA Team B’s effort left USA Team A and Canada as also-rans. In the after-match NYAC banquet and the next day’s clinic much banter was heard and translated. Russia resolves to re-tool, France to repeat, Germany to win back what they feel is theirs, Pedro to keep fighting and the New York Open’s competition committee to continue to make Canada welcome. Certainly the New York Open’s three-year running experiment to convert the New York Open to a team event is a resounding success. The referees and judges were able to all watch one match at a time and invariably the judges got the calls right even when discussion was required. The use of the two camera video review system was very effective. As a three-time coach and past participant Jimmy Pedro’s enthusiasm for the event is to be expected, "The NY Open team competition has become one of my favorite judo events to attend. The team format is very exciting and the New York Open’s competition directorate, which consists of Mel Appelbaum, John Walla and Dr. Arthur Canario, ensure that some of the top players in the world are in attendance performing in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere which allows the athletes to show off their judo. The New York Open Judo Team Championship was sponsored by the New York Athletic Club, United Water and Film Annex. The video content and pictures associated with the event will be available online at www.JudoArts.com. The exciting final match to decide the championship between team France and Team Germany can be found at http://judoarts.com/movie/2013-new-york-open-judo-cup-super-final/34586
Photos by Deborah Shapiro