You’ll forgive me for not being entertained.
After what we’ve seen recently in this corner of the South Pacific, the early rounds in Tahiti have been lacking a little in imagination. Maybe if Jadson Andre had self-immolated inside the tube, or Matt Wilkinson had been thrown violently from a 15-foot lip, or Kolohe Andino had backdoored the West Peak on a motorcycle then maybe—just maybe—I would have spent more of my valuable minutes watching rounds one and two over the weekend. But alas, it’s been mushy and squally and the opposite of a postcard, and watching guys crumping onto dry reef begging for four-pointers isn’t why we tune into Tahiti. We demand a perverse pantomime, some basic suspension of disbelief, a Code Black swell, an aquatic motorbike and a shark to jump maybe. So far this contest has been snoozeworthy at best.
Things improved today with, if you’d believe the hyperbole, “the heat of the year.” I don’t know if I was quite quaffing the Kool Aid on this call, but John John Florence’s heat with Gabe Medina certainly breathed life into this contest.
Just seeing John John back on tour was enough in itself. The vacuum created by his absence via an ankle injury has been filled by Owen Wright’s double-double perfect heats in Fiji and Mick Fanning’s brush with a big fish in South Africa (and the more rapacious mainstream media coverage that followed), but there was a welcome sigh when in round one John took off impossibly late, disappeared impossibly deep, then re-emerged impossibly relaxed, scratching his nuts. Seemingly being held together with tape like a mummy, John immediately started toying with the place and we were overcome again (as we were during his golden run on tour late last year) with the sense that the tour needs John more than John needs the tour. His movie, when it drops, could make the tour irrelevant. It might also make other all other surf movies irrelevant at the same time.
Gabe’s tour profile has been lower than John’s recently, the only difference being that Gabe has actually been turning up to the events and surfing them. The reigning world champ—and the defending champion here in Tahiti—has had a tough year, and came into this event rated 15th, the tsunami of support he rode to the title last year seemingly having overwhelmed him. His losses this year have been against a Star Wars bar of journeymen, rookies and wildcards, guys last year he’d have crushed up and eaten in acai form. Well, today he got John John, about as tough an early draw as you could hope against here in Tahiti, and if Gabe was going to salvage anything from this season it had to start, like, now.
The heat was great, don’t get me wrong. There was splendid contrast: John’s languid slide against Gabe’s livewire hustle, the ocean pulsing and both surfers trading 9s with a bee’s dick between them on the scoreboard. If you’ve ever surfed on a reef pass with Gabe Medina you’ll be familiar with his inability to sit still, and that worked for him today. He scoured the reef at Teahupoo, didn’t wait for the waves to find him, and in many ways made his own luck…the kind that has been in short supply for him this year.
The guy who had all the luck in South Africa, however, seemed to run out of it in Tahiti today. How Mick Fanning was going to rebound from the shark attack in the J-Bay final has been a hot topic of conjecture, the general line of thinking being that a guy like Mick has made lemonade from lemons all his life, and this psychological scrape would only steel him for something bigger this year, like a world title, maybe. The shark may be having more sleepless nights than Mick.
Well, Mick’s loss today had nothing to do with luck, good or bad. Aritz Aranburu, an understated surfer with understated form out here, pre-shrunk for the small conditions, made the early running and Mick never got close. He looked a little disengaged, but you’d be brave to suggest Mick Fanning won’t be in the mix when the title is there to be taken later in the year.
Who else will be riding shotgun come Pipeline is a good question. It’s wide open right now. Adriano crashed out again today and will certainly surrender the yellow jersey after this event. Owen Wright looked great again today, Felipe Toledo is into the last 12, while Julian Wilson gets his chance tomorrow to prove the whole shark thing might actually work for him, rather than against him. And lurking deep in the ratings below them all is Kelly, the tour’s apex predator, eyeing off a late swell in the final days of the contest window, knowing a win here in Tahiti—as it’s done since time immemorial—would put him on course for a world title in a year where his chances have been written off and his fashion sense has been talked about more than his surfing.