Cracking top 4 next step for Manuel as 2015 season opens today

Last year was certainly a breakout campaign for Malia Manuel. Today begins her march toward another successful season on the women’s Samsung Galaxy Championship Tour with the intent of joining four surfers who have recently dominated the top of the rankings. Manuel finished 2014 fifth in the CT standings – her best ever finish – but she showed the determination and expectation of moving up even higher.

The Roxy Pro Gold Coast opens today (Saturday in Australia) and Manuel will be in the contest’s first heat at Snapper Rocks in Queensland. Last year showed off her improved approach to contest surfing as she was consistently reaching quarterfinals, earning an Equal Fifth or better result in seven of the season’s 10 events. That helped her jump all the way from a ranking of 13 in 2013 to knocking on the door of the Steph-Carissa-Tyler-Sally foursome. The next step is to crash that group and put herself in the world title mix. Judging by her competitiveness, she certainly feels she belongs up there.

If you were to watch her interviews on mute, one might assume Malia is just a happy-go-lucky, carefree wahine. While she does always seem to have a smile on her face during her interviews – which are typically more insightful than most – her competitiveness is unquestioned. She wasn’t thrilled with the way one of her heats was judged last year, resulting in the only second-round defeat of her 2014 season. That frustration manifested itself in just about the most polite way possible, which was a well thought out and logical post on Instagram. She quickly and respectfully voiced what she thought was incorrect, but it was a clear indication that she’s not just on tour to put on a good show. She’s here to win.

Starting today, everyone has a clean slate. There’s no pressure to get a certain result or finish ahead of another competitor. With that in mind, all 17 tour regulars can envision themselves as a world champ. That is, of course, unrealistic for some, but with the depth of this year’s roster, it’s not so ridiculous for most. A strong start today at Snapper can set the tone for what’s to come.

Manuel is in the very first non-elimination heat along with France’s Johanne Defay and Sage Erickson, who is back on tour after a one-year absence. Defay was one of last year’s best stories down the stretch. After no quarterfinal appearances in the first four contests, she reached the quarters in all six events and made two semifinals. Like Manuel, she was unable to break all the way through into a final, but both are very much in the mix to get to that last twosome at some point this season.

While she debuted in three events last season as an injury replacement wild card, Princeville’s Tatiana Weston-Webb makes her first start as a CT regular today. She gets to face two-time world champ Carissa Moore and Laura Enever, who is coming off a win at the Hurley Australian Open earlier this month.

It’s been the top four and then the rest for a few seasons now, but 2015 probably has some more surprises in store. The offseason flew by in a flash, but ready or not, here they come.

SEABASS READY FOR YEAR THREE: Kilauea’s Sebastian Zietz gets his third season on the men’s Championship Tour started today at the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast. Zietz will be in the second heat of round one along with Tahiti’s Michel Bourez and New Zealand’s Ricardo Christie.

Zietz needed to secure his re-qualification in last year’s final event, the Billabong Pipe Masters. He got the result and is now back for his third year on the CT. He’s one of five Hawaii surfers to make the Top 34, along with John John Florence, Freddy Patacchia, Dusty Payne after a one-year absence and rookie Keanu Asing.

Both the men’s and women’s events will run simultaneously and can be followed at worldsurfingleague.com. The Queensland location is 20 hours ahead of Hawaiian Standard Time.

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

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