High hopes but rough results on finals day at Fiji Women’s Pro

I suppose you could say I was overly optimistic. In hindsight, I most certainly was. But there was reason for such hope heading into finals day at the Fiji Women’s Pro.

Unfortunately for Hawaii’s surfers, Thursday’s action did not go according to an ideal script. All four wahine, including Kauai’s Tatiana Weston-Webb and Malia Manuel, were eliminated from the contest in their first heats of the day. They all entered finals day with a pretty good opportunity to improve upon their success through three rounds, but it wasn’t in the cards.

The fourth round featured Manuel, Coco Ho and top-ranked Carissa Moore. All three could have been considered favorites in their respective heats, but upsets were the theme of the day. Ho was the first casualty in a low-scoring exchange with Laura Enever. The Aussie hadn’t won a heat all season entering Fiji, but she found her rhythm on Tavarua Island and made it all the way to the quarterfinals, thanks to a 13.67 to 9.00 victory over Ho.

Moore was up next and experienced plenty of drama in her battle with Lakey Peterson. The ocean stayed quiet until the final seven minutes, when each competitor picked up their top two scores and both traded jabs through the final minute. The lead changed with each score coming through and Moore held the edge as Peterson needed a 7.94 with less than 20 seconds remaining. A good-sized wave seemed to appear from nowhere and Peterson hopped into it, stringing together three big turns before hopping off her board in a closeout. Both surfers had to wait in the water to hear the outcome and it came through in Peterson’s favor, but only just. She earned an 8.00 to move on with a 14.67 to 14.60 victory.

After Johanne Defay pulled off a shocker of her own with a win over Tyler Wright, Manuel went up against Bianca Buitendag for the final quarterfinal berth. They had a heavy exchange midway through the heat and Manuel had a chance at a high score, but she came off her board after her third big turn. The score still put her into a miniscule lead, but Buitendag quickly countered with her best wave to regain control and ultimately advance, getting a revenge victory after Manuel knocked her out at Margaret River.

So only Weston-Webb remained in the final eight and she had a tight battle with Peterson. Tati got going late, moving close to the lead with a 6.90 at the six-minute mark, then searching for a 5.68 to turn the heat. Her last effort with 90 seconds left showed commitment as she made one big turn, but she got ahead of most of the scoring potential and wiped out on her final float into a very shallow section. If she had another shot at the same wave, she probably could have better picked it apart, but the 3.83 came up shy and it was Peterson heading to the final four.

So while Hawaii surfers went 0-4 on the day, Sally Fitzgibbons went unbeaten to propel herself back into the world title hunt. After rupturing an eardrum during day two, she stayed focused and successfully topped Enever, Peterson and then Buitendag in the final to notch her first event win of the season. She did so in style with five of her six top waves reaching the excellent category, including three nines. Fitzgibbons won in Fiji last year, so she remains the only wahine to take home this particular title.

The win bumps Fitzgibbons into third place for the season. Conlogue had an opportunity to jump into the gold jersey with Moore’s fourth-round exit, but she remains in second place by only 900 points. Buitendag equaled Fitzgibbons’ jump with a three-spot leap into sixth place, thanks to back-to-back finals.

Weston-Webb’s equal fifth moves her up a spot into seventh, while Manuel drops into ninth. Ho stays put in 10th and Alessa Quizon continues to struggle after a second-round loss drops her into 15th.

The early season consistency was nowhere to be found in Fiji, which gave the contest another dimension of unpredictability. The world title race is again wide open and no longer a two-woman contest.

The men begin their Fiji Pro on Sunday. Sebastian Zietz starts his event against Maui’s Dusty Payne and Australia’s Owen Wright in round one.

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

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