By Nick Carroll
Photos (at bottom) by Jeff Flindt
Wouldn't ya know it. Just when this ridiculous bloody contest had stretched itself out into oblivion…when all hope had dried up and the surf forecast looked fouler than the town's worst dog …when wind and rain was setting in, and all that was left to end the misery was some kind of ghastly tiger shark attack scenario involving loss of limbs and the ASP insurance policy's fine print…
…along comes this: Sun. Perfect overhead pits. And the incredible, unlikely return of Andy.
AI was the Cinderella Story your correspondent suspected was waiting to happen here at Teahupo'o. But rather than emerging as a result of the Great 32 Cutoff, with some grim-faced passionate bastard from the Lost Valley of the top 45's back end hacking his way to improbable yet stirring success, it was all about a truly great surfer and competitor returning to form when even he hadn't expected it.
If you'd told Andy at the beginning of this event that he was a favourite to win – that indeed, he WOULD win – he'd have laughed in your face.
AI never came back to the world tour in some sort of fire-breathing "I'm gonna win and keep winning!" state. He knew too well the effort involved in a big tour win to think it'd ever come easily. Eighteen months ago, at the start of '09, he was out of shape, battling to remember how to surf a heat, and most of all, uncertain. Would he be able to match the new superboys, Dane and Jordy? Would he ever find the desire, the emotional energy to win that'd always been his hallmark?
Today, as the Bong Pro dragged itself out of two wearying weeks to end on a classically Tahitian high note, he vanquished the last shreds of that uncertainty with a devastating, almost impossibly deep tube ride during a semi-final against Kelly Slater – a heat Andy called "the first of two finals I surfed today".
The second final, the actual real one with the big check at the end, was against CJ Hobgood. But by then AI was fizzing, and once he starts fizzing, stopping him is like trying to stop a champagne cork from popping.
"I had that memory (of how to win) coming back all day," he told us. "When I've done well, I often start out with hard heats, close heats. I get to take those heats and then I start to get some momentum, and that's kinda what happened today."
Slater had built his own momentum through the final day. Staying here with his brothers Sean and Stephen and deliberately avoiding the contest fuss, he turned up on a 5'8" quad and began putting down his victims with typical ultra-pro skills and flair, topped with a completely freakish 10/10 against poor Ace Buchan.
Tens are bloody hard to come by on tour these days, but not even the harshest panel could deny a wave when the surfer free-falls backside to the base, has the lip actually throw out ahead of him as he lands the free-fall, then manages to bottom turn and set a rail while eight feet back inside the tube.
But Kelly had been relying on the psyche advantage to frighten his opponents into weaker performances, and that came unstuck against AI. Only Andy woulda had the confidence in the face of Slater to drive his way from so deep on a wave that seemed so intent on denying him.
"The last two minutes of that heat almost killed me," Andy said of sitting on a priority-equipped Kelly in the closing moments. "I kept thinking, 'Here we go, he's gonna get a 9.5 and win like he always does.' But he didn't!"
Emotionally drained, he played a smart final against CJ, who – perhaps having watched the AI-KS duel develop through the morning – tried a bit too hard to come up with a 10 of his own, and ended up instead with a bunch of closeout barrels.
The event's favourites, Owen Wright and Fred Patacchia Jr, never looked as threatening as in earlier rounds and crumbled to finished ninth and fifth respectively. Thirds went to a very serious and focused Jeremy Flores and to Slater, who jumps to second on the world rankings behind Jordy Smith.