Julian Wilson, 2017 Billabong Pro Tahiti. Photo: Miller
Julian Wilson, 2017 Billabong Pro Tahiti. Photo: Miller

The Doherty Report: Can I Borrow A Feeling?

Finals Day of the 2017 Billabong Pro Tahiti

The rain has drifted out of the valley and settled over Tahiti Iti, where it's predicted to remain for the next week, along with 30 knots of tradewind, the whole pretty picture going to shit. This end of the island will be rained back to the Stone Age, while Tahiti Nui – the northern half of Tahiti – will remain cloudless. Half of the contest crew is already there, sitting poolside at the Intercontinental, not a care in the world, mai tai in hand, waiting for their flights out.

But for the rest of us squibs, we hunker down in the rain and finish this thing, finish it within three days. It's been the fastest a Tour event has ever run, in the location least suited to doing things fast.

Yesterday morning felt flat. It might have been the rain. It might have been the 20 heats run the day before. It might have been the declining swell. It might have been the fact your correspondent walked home at 3:00 AM. More than anything, however, it felt flat because the day was starting with Round Four. No losers. Can I borrow a feeling? Apparently, Ace was heartbroken at losing his no-loser heat, although I'm not sure he was heartbroken in the sense of a lost love or a dead puppy. The highlight of the round was Wilko torching stablemate Medina with an interference, only for them to both turn around and see Brother Andino on the winning wave. There was a sign right there of where this day was going.

I walked up to the point and Gabby Medina ran past for his quarter with Owen Wright. Okay, now we had something. This was a final. With the swell having notched even further to the south, the deck was stacked in his favor. Teahupoo had lost whatever teeth it had and had turned into a pointbreak. Gabby's forehand dagger (thanks, Joe) would slice and dice. He wouldn't even need tubes. Gabby, of course, paddled straight out and backdoored the west peak for a perfect 10-point tube.

I gave Jordy little hope against John John in a quarterfinal that would decide the Tour leader post-Tahiti. Jordy had made a decent fist of his Tahiti campaign, actually looking comfortable out there for the first time in, well, forever. But, well…John. This place is John's sandbox, and the only reason he'd never won this contest before was now sitting back in California in a moonboot. But a slow ocean always works against Florence, who, if he gets one nine, he gets five. John lost the heat more than Jordy won it – the heat totals stand to that – but Jordy's whole Tahiti campaign was a win. He'd lose in the semis to Julian Wilson, but he's set himself up for a serious title run.

On the drive in from Faa'a Airport last week, Luke Egan and I discussed in the car the idea of tossing a coin at the start of a heat to avoid the shitfight of hassling for the first wave. What happened with Toledo and Igarashi, that kinda thing. The coin was one suggestion, the other being the idea of starting with both surfers having priority, meaning you'd still get the jockeying, but if you paddled for a wave, you'd lose priority. Luke thought that seemed fair enough, but I argued the other way. I wanted the hassling. I wanted the shitfight. Where's Filipe? Bring me Gabby! It's man-on-man, right? All collisions and friction and hard edges have been systematically ground off the sport, and yeah, priority during a heat makes sense, but yesterday, we saw how this one surviving vestige of an old combative system can bring the feeling.

I wasn't sure if it was Gabby hassling Brother Andino or the other way around, but it was a great five minutes of sport. Ugly, but great, and it brought an otherwise batshit-boring day to life.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to surfing against Gabby. You paddle out knowing he will paddle you to Samoa to get the first wave of the heat, so do you go with him or ignore him completely? I'd argue for working Gabby over, because I reckon his own game backfires. I know 31 guys who will disagree, but Gabe is actually not good at hassling…hassling for tactical benefit, anyway. He's lost a bunch of heats this year because of it (just as Filipe has) and yesterday, he almost lost the Final with just a minute gone. If Julian Wilson had managed to scratch onto the wave on Gabe's inside, the Final would have been over because of a brain fart.

The draw was perfect. Julian versus Gabby, their past two finals having been decided controversially, the history simmering, and you knew that Julian wouldn't take any shit from Gabby. It flared within seconds, the pair paddling over each other and Julian seeming to shove him out of the way before Gabby got the first wave, lucky to not get his ass handed an interference.

Gabby had been the best surfer over the stretch of the day, and with a nine and an eight, seemed to have the Final on ice. But then Julian went nine, then a better nine, and in the space of three minutes had gotten the lead. Gabe circled him and they exchanged words. The conceding handshake 30 seconds out crackled electricity, before Gabe shot off to try and find a winning wave. Is that the equivalent of tapping out then still fighting?

And then the presentation in the boat? If it was designed for maximum awkwardness and lack of atmosphere then it worked perfectly. At last year's presentation, Cedric, the Tahitian announcer, got zapped by an unearthed radio mike, fingers of electricity shooting him in the teeth and sending him to the hospital. Maybe they thought it was safer in the boat? Or maybe they figured that putting the two side-by-side in close proximity would spark some fireworks in the same way putting Kelly and Andy together in a confined space in 2003 would have done?

Have Jules and Gabby become our new Kelly and Andy? Is this the great rivalry we have been seeking? That's three finals now, and all of them have boiled over afterwards in some way…both on site and online. I reckon Charlie Medina was going boat-to-boat in the channel looking for some plastic furniture to throw after this one, and you can bet Julian and Gabe will be the online controversy du jour until some conspiratorial judging episode replaces it.

I applaud both Jules and Gabby, for it's clear that for both of them, winning matters. Does this mark a great turning point in the sport where, once again, a little friction is a good thing? Where heats are no longer fun? Where heats are not just important, not just life-and-death important…but far more important even than that?