Tyler Wright, 2017 Maui Pro. Photo: WSL / Poullenot
Tyler Wright, 2017 Maui Pro. Photo: WSL / Poullenot

The Doherty Report: Deuces, Gracie

On Tyler Wright's path to her second World Title, from the notes of Sean Doherty

"Oh yeah… it's alright, I suppose."

My favorite quote from Honolua yesterday came from Glenn Hall, whom a friend used to describe as "that guy who sounds like an old woman." He was in the channel at Honolua Bay with his surfer, Tyler Wright, who was safely winning the heat and a couple of minutes away from winning-back-to-back World Titles. It wasn't a façade. He wasn't simply trying to keep a lid on the excitement of it all until it was official. Over the past couple of years, he and Tyler have been able to find a groove where things just happen. They don't need huge emotional surges to conjure Tyler's best surfing. Last year was all emotion. This year just was.

No, Tyler ran out those last couple of minutes and was next to Hall in the channel when the siren sounded, just them, and there it was. It was official. Tyler Wright was world champion, again. It was all very matter-of-fact, but the act they've built over the past two years is designed to do just that.

Tyler's brother winning the first men’s event of the year must have contributed hugely to Tyler winning yesterday. If ever anything ever provided closure, Owen winning at Snapper Rocks closed the chapter on his brain injury, and Tyler could go back to whatever life was before. The pair hasn't traveled so much together this year. Owen has been on the road with his girlfriend Kita and their young lad, Vali. Tyler, meanwhile, has been trying to back up the World Title she'd won last year, the one she'd promised to Owen. She'd have to win this one for herself.

Winning two in a row has never proved easy. Pottz delivered his best line of the year yesterday on that subject. He said the year after he won the title was his worst year on Tour…but also his best. I'm guessing this was the Strange Desires phase of his life.

Tyler has never really looked like winning the Title this year, but then again, nobody has. I think the only time there was a clear World Title favorite was after Steph won the first event of the year at Snapper with surfing that might have beaten Owen for the men's title. From that point, it's been a strange old season. Nobody has had any real momentum at any stage, girls like Sage Erickson and Nikki Van Dijk have broken through to win maiden events, and by the time it rolled around to Honolua, there were five girls in contention, with none of them a clear winner.

At this point, we've got to go back a day and spare a thought for Sally Fitzgibbons. She'd come into Maui leading on paper, although on adjusted ratings she actually trailed…and trailed also in terms of mojo. The weight of being so close, so often over the years, must have felt like three gravities weighing down on her. She seemed nervous, got totally lost in her first heat, and then, facing sudden death, the ocean went flat on her. Two waves broke and she wasn't on the good one. The rain falling just as the clock counted her out said it all, the scene heartbreaking. I heard a story that after Sally had lost on the Gold Coast this year, she went home, put her joggers on, and ran a 30 K — just to run out the loss. As she sat there in the rain, I was waiting for her to start paddling toward Oahu, but to her credit, she dusted herself off and within an hour was already talking about next year. This felt like her shot, though.

Courtney Conlogue was third coming into Maui, but with Sally gone, was well positioned for a rails run. She surfed Honolua as a 14-year-old wildcard, has the steeliest demeanor, and had Luke Egan in her corner. But for all of that, she fell apart yesterday, fell on a half-dozen waves, and any one of them would have been enough to get her through. She had the chance.

There's a lot to be said for Honolua as the women's title decider. Provided it's actually breaking, it's a world-class wave the women can get a line on and surf with confidence, and it's little surprise the best surfing of the women's season went down yesterday.

The Steph and Silvana quarter was a gem.

Silvana Lima has been my favorite surfer on the women's Tour this year. Looking past the backstory of her selling all her worldy possessions just to be there, her surfing has been sharp, especially in quality surf. She got more tubed and handled the inside section at Honolua better than anyone, and hustled her opponents into mistakes. I love her whole act. It's funny, because here in Australia, we're seeing diminishing returns with success on the men's Tour, and with the looming Olympics, everyone you speak to has a different solution to the problem. My solution would simply be to poach Silvana as the Australian Coach. All surfers would be made to divest their property portfolio, sell their car, travel two-star, and be forced to win heats to eat. The worldview would change within a week…and their results soon after.

Nothing was going to stop Steph, however. Nothing is likely to stop her today, either, on the way to at least winning the contest. She was a mathematical longshot heading into Honolua, but those numbers blew away in the wind after just one wave. She's incredible out there. Not even Kelly and his crew could engineer a wave better suited for her. The two events on Tour this year that have had legitimate, world-class surf (Honolua, and I've stretched it to include the wave pool exhibition), there has been a gulf in class between her and everyone else, with maybe the exception of Carissa. The only problem is that the rest of the Tour has struggled for quality surf, and both Steph and Carissa have struggled to stay interested as a result. At one stage, Carissa had a chance of missing qualification. Carissa. They might be both mired in a mid-career malaise, there might be personal reasons we’re not privy to, but at least at Honolua, we've seen them both at their best. I can't wait to see what they do to J-Bay and the wave pool next year. At the same time, I'm campaigning to keep both of them out of Huntington.

Tyler Wright strikes me as one of those kids who would have seen a puppy, chased it around for an hour, then looked up and realized they were a mile from home. It seems she can lose herself in a moment for a whole week…and this week she got lost in her World Title moment. She got so lost in it that when she finally won, as described in the opening paragraph, she looked up and seemed genuinely surprised. While Sally and Courtney had overthought it, Tyler had just surfed. Watching Steph turn into a lioness in the previous quarter might have turned Tyler's self-belief into a poodle, but she just had to get past wildcard Brisa Hennessy, and the title was hers, and she did it by-the-book-clinical, a bit of shell game with priority and two solid keepers. She still looked hampered by her knee that only a month ago had an MCL that was flapping in the breeze. It shortened her turns at Honolua and her surfing wasn't classical, but strategically, she couldn't be faulted and she kept her head. She did everything right yesterday. She owned it.

And if indeed Steph wins the contest today, Tyler will have won the World Title by a single heat, and for that, we look back to Portugal when she first injured the knee. At that point, she was out for the season, and by rights, she should have been. Instead, she surfed on with scaffolding on her back leg, surfed through the pain, and somehow went from being out for the season to making the semis. She had her own miracle comeback this year, and those heats in Portugal, as it turns out, came in handy.