The might of the qualifying disciplines are about to explode into action around the globe over the coming week. Already underway at Phillip Island, Victoria is the Roxy Pro Women's Surfing Festival featuring qualifying events in all three women's divisions, a 5 Star WQS plus Longboard and Junior Women's qualifiers.
Across the Pacific Ocean the 4 Star Monster Energy pro is about to launch at Pipeline on January 27 and around the Magellan Straits and up the east coast of South America the first 6 Star of the year, the Mormaii Pro Costao de Santiago is set to kick off in Florianopolis, Brazil on January 30.
To round out the action the Hurley Burleigh Junior Pro is underway on the Goldie, so it is a full book of ASP activity in motion, and it's only January. The top seeds are entering the fray at Phillip Island. No less then 12 of 17 current WCT surfers have entered the Roxy Pro and they for the first time in 07 will face the opening barrage from the serious challengers and hopefuls for 08 WCT berths.
Buoyed by the success of young brigade CT debutantes Stephanie Gilmore, Caroline Sarran and Roseanne Hodge, a whole raft of new faces have progressed to the point of entry for the top seeds, making for some tantalizing match-ups. Take heat 3 for example, we see the newly seeded Caroline Sarran & Roseanne Hodge take on rising kiwi star Airini Mason and Hawaii's Bethany Hamilton. With punchy 4-6' waves on offer on “the island”, Kauai's Bethany Hamilton has been revelling in the juice so this should be a cracker.
Another early season barometer will be Ht 7 featuring Melanie Bartels, former WCT campaigner Laurina McGrath, red hot young ripper Sally Fitzgibbon and fellow NSW surfer Carly Smith. These heats are representative of the challenge, there are recent CT graduates stepping out as top seeds, former WCT surfers looking to claw there way back to the Major Leagues and a host of fresh new talents that are looking to slipstream the likes of Steph Gilmore and really put it to the established order.
One intriguing element will be how Gilmore handles the mantle of defending champion. She's been in this space before but never as a member of the status quo. The men are coming into a reasonably critical phase. Getting a keeper result in the early going can do wonders for ones conviction and self belief. A great result can lay the foundations for a momentum building first half of the season, those with 3 or 4 of their Best 7 locked in before the torrid US Open/Euro leg often go on with the job.
The last couple years has seen a divergence of focus by the CT surfers. Paying mere lip service to the WQS, many have opted against hedging their bets by taking up their seeding rights and contesting these early events.
Then again, confidence can also come from posting a personal best or overcoming a major hurdle in solid company. This could be achieved at the Monster Energy Pro presented by Billabong. It may only be a 4 Star, offering a handful of significant keeper points, but the specialist field on hand and the opportunity to be in surfings most famous arena with three other gladiators makes for a unique opportunity.
While the glory hunters and thrillseekers, not to mention those looking for a berth in the year end Billabong Pipeline Masters, will be focussed on Pipe between Jan 27 & Feb 9, the bulk of the serious qualifying aspirants will make the journey to Brazil for a double-header 6 Star & 5 Star Prime.
With a whopping 5000 points on offer for double victory this leg looms as the first serious confrontation between those defending WCT berths, those on the next grid who worked their way into contention during 2006, and a legion of journeymen and unknowns searching for that lucky break that will propel their careers into the cosmos.
The last couple years has seen a divergence of focus by the CT surfers. Paying mere lip service to the WQS, many have opted against hedging their bets by taking up their seeding rights and contesting these early events. After a torrid year end schedule it is very hard to drag themselves away from a well earned and even cherished seasonal break, however this omission from their roster can come at great personal expense, not to mention a few grey hairs as they scurry for qualifying points down the home stretch.
The new WQS formats have in essence demanded more of a focus by the guys who traditionally domicile on the qualifying cusp, and they have also provided scope for the cream of the new crop to cut a swathe through the ranks, shedding years off the qualifying procedure. The Rd of 96 has become the new battle ground, where the new guard confronts the keepers of the gateway to heaven.
The ASP Technical Committee has tweaked the points in the new format, adjusting point differentials to reflect not only the new thresholds of point attainment but to create reward for advancing through respective rounds of competition. The pointy end remains the same but more emphasis is placed on making it through as opposed to say 3rd & 4th place in a particular round.
All the ingredients are in place for a mighty big showdown in Phillip Island, Hawaii and Brazil. All the preparation, the hours of soul searching by those who just missed the cut, the countless sessions put in by those aspiring to rise up the totem pole, the strategies prepared by those intent on becoming a tour de force in 2007, are coming into play over the next fortnight.
Good luck to all those putting their dreams on the line, the rehearsal are done, we await the curtain call.