Women’s Fiji Pro to open with Manuel looking to continue climb

Last year brought the Fiji Pro back to the world tour with some strong results for our local surfers. The 2015 Fiji Women’s Pro could get underway this morning after a Saturday lay day.

In 2014, Malia Manuel’s charge into the top five really began in Fiji, where she got the first of three semifinal appearances within a span of five contests. She had the second-best heat total of the event and knocked out Paige Hareb and Johanne Defay before falling to eventual champion Sally Fitzgibbons in the semis.

Manuel is again pushing towards that top-five status as she enters Fiji this time around. She has a throwaway result at Bells Beach, but she’s reached the quarterfinals in her other three contests and made the semis at Margaret River. As the tour now hits the halfway point, she has another opportunity to jump up the leaderboard, especially with Stephanie Gilmore still sidelined with injury.

Her opening heat will be the final of round one and should be a challenging matchup. She’ll go up against Bianca Buitendag, who just reached the final at the Rio Pro, and Nikki Van Dijk.

Tatiana Weston-Webb, who sits one spot behind Manuel in eighth place for the season, gets into the water in heat one. Weston-Webb made a splash last year as a wild card at the Fiji Pro. Not only did she win the GoPro Challenge, she made the fourth round after knocking out Lakey Peterson during a bizarre heat in which Peterson didn’t record a single score. She’ll again face Peterson in the first round, as well as Alessa Quizon, who is off to a rough start in 2015. Quizon has just one heat win through four contests and needs to begin putting some results together to move towards the top 10 for re-qualification.

Mahina Maeda has earned a wild card into the event, making her the sixth Hawaii wahine along with Manuel, Weston-Webb, Quizon, Carissa Moore and Coco Ho. Maeda has been perhaps the best junior in the world over the past two to three years, winning a pair of ISA junior gold medals and earning some good results in Qualifying Series events, including a win at the QS 6,000 Hainan Pro this season. She’ll go up against top-ranked Moore and Dimity Stoyle in round one.

Fiji will either prove to be further separation for Moore and second-ranked Courtney Conlogue, or it could bring a third or fourth contender back into the fold. Fitzgibbons or Tyler Wright would be the most likely candidates, but they need to start reaching finals to disrupt the momentum of the top two. Conlogue may have picked up a minor injury during a free surf, but she said Saturday it wouldn’t impact her participation. She’s the in-form surfer at the moment, having won the past two contests, and sits just 2,800 points behind Moore.

The rest of the field is more than 8,000 points behind Conlogue. The gap between Conlogue and third-place Wright is actually equivalent to the gap between Wright and 11th-place Silvana Lima. Last year it was the top four, then everyone else. This year it’s the top two.

We’ll see if Fiji further solidifies this fact or if the storyline can still be changed for the second half of the season.

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

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