It’s hard to fault a sporting format when it produces the result that the best in the world win the world titles, but here goes.
The World Surf League’s Rip Curl Finals Series, held on the best day of the season at Lower Trestles, California last week was a spectacle worthy of missing a night’s sleep to watch. Interrupted only twice by a random shark patrolling the trademark cobblestones, the action just kept coming in solid, clean overhead conditions, with each heat on the road to the titles more intense than the previous. The airs got higher, the gouges deeper. It was the best day of high performance pro surfing I’ve seen in a long, long time, and I’ve seen a lot.
But here’s the rub. Going into this debut finals series after a Covid-shortened season, Brazil’s Gabriel Medina had a virtually unassailable lead in the rankings. In 2021 Medina had the best start in his career, reaching the final in the opening three events on the men’s championship tour. He gained a significant lead over the rest of the field when he won the Rip Curl Narrabeen Classic and the Rip Curl Rottnest Search, his first event wins in Australia since the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast in 2014.
Love him or loathe him, this was Gabby’s season, and if Trestles had simply been the final event of the season, nothing would have stopped him taking the title. As it was, he had to battle a rampaging Filipe Toledo over two heats to officially claim his third world title, something he couldn’t help but mentioning in his post-heat interview.
“I already won the world title, but if they want me to surf another two heats to officially win it, no problem, that’s what I do,” he said. For once, he wasn’t being arrogant, just truthful. It could have gone the other way, but Medina kept raising the bar, and his countryman had no answers.
While Hawaii’s Carissa Moore didn’t have Medina’s huge lead coming into the finals series, she did have an Olympic gold medal, the rankings lead and the fact that she was reigning champion on her side. Carissa had been the most consistent surfer on tour this season and the only person to reach the semi finals or better in all seven events. The five-time world champion had finished third or better at every CT event since the 2019 Margaret River Pro, and 2021 marked the 10th consecutive season that Moore has won more than 20 heats, the longest streak in WSL history.
None of this mattered a damn when she hit the water at Trestles in the first of a best of three heats final against Brazil’s Tatiana Weston-Webb. Carissa looked strangely uncertain, out of rhythm and even a bit wobbly, while the Brazilian smashed big swooping backhand turns into the lip over and over again to take the first heat. Carissa was just two good waves away from her opponent from ending her assault on the record books. And Tattie would have got there, if Kelly Slater on commentary is any judge. He claimed she was underscored by more than a point on her best ride, and although I don’t like her style much, I tend to agree.
Commentator Chris Coté noted: “I haven’t heard any criticism of the format since we started today. It’s just great because it means that to win a world title you have to consistently be the best in all conditions to get here, and then the pressure is on.”
Well, agreed the pressure was on Carissa, but in fact an upset would have proven the opposite – that you can be the best all season and still lose. But Carissa was not to be denied, fighting back strongly in the second and then taking the decider convincingly.
Of the Australians in the mix, only Sally Fitzgibbons managed to advance, smashing France’s Johanne Defay in the second round after Defay had punished Steph Gilmore in the first, in which Steph looked out of sorts. In the men’s, tour rookie Morgan Cibilic looked overwhelmed by the occasion, and disappointingly ended an incredible debut season by going down easily to California’s Conner Coffin.
So, what to make of the final series experiment? It was exciting, no two ways about it. Was it fair? Potentially, no, but in the end the two most deserving surfers won. It’s hard to argue with that.
SurfGroms are back
The Woolworths SurfGroms program is making a welcome return to Noosa, with the Go Ride A Wave school presenting this great value introduction to our sport over the school holidays.
The four-day program of 90-minute lessons adopts an approach to learning that uses group-based games to not only equip kids with the skills they need to surf, but also to encourage their participation by having fun. Every Woolworths SurfGroms lesson is designed to create a positive and supportive learning environment.
SurfGroms teaches children from five to 12-years-old core skills in the ocean across five incremental skill levels, as well as fundamental ocean awareness and beach safety skills such as surf survival and rescue techniques, basic first aid skills, and varying surf conditions at the beach.
Peter Fidler at Go Ride A Wave has spaces available in the 10am sessions for the second week of the holidays, Monday through to Thursday. Visit gorideawave.com.au or call 1300 132 441.