Men’s world title race hangs in Teahupoo balance

  • Cestari / WSL
    Julian Wilson won the 2017 Billabong Pro Tahiti, overcoming a huge deficit in the final to beat Gabriel Medina. The contest has a new name this year, but the 2018 Tahiti Pro Teahupoo opens up on Friday. Wilson and Medina sit second and third, respectively, on the Championship Tour rankings. Each is chasing current points leader Filipe Toledo.

One of the year’s best contests gets underway Friday with the Tahiti Pro Teahupoo, an event that often provides some of the season’s most memorable moments.

Last year it was an epic encounter between Gabriel Medina and Julian Wilson that created the lasting imagery. Wilson battled back from a combination position in the final moments to score the 18.96 to 17.87 victory and keep himself in the title hunt.

Past seasons have seen Kelly Slater and John John Florence show off for heat of the year honors, as well as a young Medina topping Slater to officially take a spot amongst the elite.

Where will the memorable moments emerge from this time around?

Filipe Toledo carries the yellow jersey into Tahiti after winning his second event of the season at Jeffreys Bay. Toledo leapt over Wilson by about 4,000 points and Medina sits in third just over 10,000 points behind. It may feel like a decent margin at this stage, but with what both Wilson and Medina can do at this wave, it’s anything but safe.

Toledo has never been a major factor at Teahupoo. In the past five seasons, he’s competed here four times. Just once (2015) he made it beyond the second round, earning a ninth-place finish. Each other time, he’s been knocked out in his first elimination heat. This is one of the heaviest barrels in the world and Toledo just hasn’t managed to figure out how to score it yet. He’s had some decent showings at Pipeline, so we know he can work in the tube when required. Just not in Tahiti — at least not yet.

As the top seed, Toledo has the unenviable task of facing at least one wild card. The trials will determine two additional entrants to the field, one of whom will be in Toledo’s first-round non-elimination heat. The trials are filled with competitors who know this wave under any condition and have proven to be tough outs in the past. Bruno Santos reached the quarterfinals two years ago from a wild card spot and put up 17.43 points in a losing effort against Slater.

Having to face a local in some of these tour spots make the yellow jersey less a privilege and more of a burden.

Owen Wright, Adriano de Souza and Matt Wilkinson comprise probably the highest calibre first-round heat, however all three are having down years by their own standards. Wright started strong in Australia, but has slipped to 11th overall. De Souza, the 2015 world title winner, sits in 16th place. Wilkinson is all the way down in 30th place and has four minimum results this season. He’s finished fifth in the world each of the past two seasons, so this fall is meteoric if he’s unable to turn things around quickly.

Another first-round heat appears to be a Qualifying Series final, rather than a Championship Tour opener. Griffin Colapinto, Kanoa Igarashi and Keanu Asing will face off in heat nine. Colapinto is having a tremendous rookie campaign, sitting in 10th place. Igarashi is coming off a win at the US Open of Surfing on Sunday in his hometown of Huntington Beach, Calif. It’s his second consecutive US Open championship and gives him another fairly secure re-qualification position.

Asing has work to do on both fronts. He’s 31st on the CT and all the way down in 77th on the QS. His resume this season isn’t quite what we’re used to seeing and the time is now for him to make a move on either tour.

But the tour is heading to one of its golden locales for an always exciting event. Heavy wipeouts and massive scores are what Teahupoo is all about. There should be a solid mix of both and hopefully everyone walks away unscathed.

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David Simon can be reached at dsimon@thegardenisland.com.

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