There is no shortage of excitement on day one in Abu Dhabi. The stage is set inside the Mabadala Arena and the air is thick with the tension for what this event really means. Yes, there is the honour that comes with winning a world medal but there is also the knowledge that every result, every loss and every point can have an impact on the final list of who will and who will not travel to Paris this summer. For many, their whole career has been building towards this Olympic Games and the end of that road is now clearly visible.

With every round and every result being so pivotal, how can any single moment be picked out in advance to keep an eye on? It’s a smorgasbord for the judo lovers eyes! Just take the -52 kg category, for example; density, excellence, potential medallists in every corner. So, what else should we look out for?

One - Ryuju Nagayama (JPN)

Day one features the only member of the Japanese Olympic team who is also contesting the 2024 World Championships. Ryuju Nagayama will fight for a world title at -60 kg, seeded 4th and therefore on the same side of the draw as the world number one, Yang (TPE).

Nagayama has been a world champion before but only as a junior, his two senior medals being bronzes. Having won his last 3 events, perhaps now is his time to shine and just at the right moment to build towards the even bigger goal of Olympic glory.

Nagayama (JPN) winning the 2023 Tokyo Grand Slam.

However, his quarter of the draw is no cake walk and we shouldn’t expect it to be. It is, after all, a world championship. Bliev (AIN), Aghayev (AZE) and Smetov (KAZ) are all poised and ready and any one of them can topple the best.

Two - Yeldos Smetov and the Kazakh Choice Ahead

Having mentioned Smetov, the Kazakh is among those with most to play for in the category. He’s the third of the three Kazakhs in direct qualification for the Games at -60 kg, present in Abu Dhabi with Serikbayev, Kazakhstan’s number one. Shamsahdin, the current runner up is absent. Therefore a medal for Smetov would be the equivalent of a catapult from third to first and could give him the Olympic ticket.

Serikbayev has a world cadet gold but nothing at senior level. Shamshadin has a world junior gold but again nothing at the senior level. Smetov, even at 31 years old, is betting on his two Olympic medals and senior world title. If anyone can make a play for glory, it’s him!

Three - Assunta Scutto (ITA)

From her last junior event, the junior worlds in 2022, Scutto has rarely missed the podium at the senior level. She’s fast and determined and on her best day is virtually unbeatable.

However, she’s been struggling somewhat since last year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Slam. There was a bronze in Paris but nothing at the senior Europeans, in Tashkent or in Antalya. She’ll be wanting to have a ‘best day’ performance in UAE to point her towards finding her mojo again before the Games. If she does find it, everyone else at -48 kg had better watch out!

Four - the Flag Show

The world championships, whether in Olympic year or not, is the flagship event of each one year micro-cycle. It carries honour and national pride, it brings the energy to a climactic level and comes with rewards that last a lifetime. To be a world champion in any discipline is something incredible and every athlete in attendance in Abu Dhabi knows they are flying their flag for everyone at home.

107 nations are inscribed and among them are several we don’t see often. The smaller judo nations understand very well how important the world championships are and they travel no matter what the statistics tell them about medal prospects.

It is correct to observe the effort being made, the investment they inject in order to develop and stay in touch with the contemporary competition scene. The judo family is not just here to support the winners but to support everyone who makes the effort to bring their best, whatever that ‘best’ is. It was Jigoro Kano’s way; ‘Where there is effort, there is always accomplishment.’

Esposito (MLT) competing in Linz earlier this year.

On day one, among the athletes from Japan, France, Brazil, Uzbekistan and Italy be those coming from the Ivory Coast, Cape Verde, India, El Salvador, Mozambique, Panama, Malta, Gabon and Burundi, and many more. Applaud them all!

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