Men’s tour barrels back into action today at Teahupoo

There’s always a lot at stake at Teahupoo and not just in terms of points and cash — maybe least of all being points and cash. No, Teahupoo is where reputations can be made and nerves can be frayed. It’s a wave of consequence, to say the least.

So when the Billabong Pro Tahiti begins today, the rankings probably won’t be at the forefront of most of the surfers’ minds. Getting into the barrel and getting out safely will be.

Kelly Slater made his lone final last year at Teahupoo and will be competing in the first heat this time around. Slater is again looking for his first finals appearance this season, but he enters in sixth place for the year. Slater managed to jump up five spots with a semifinal showing at Jeffreys Bay. Without anyone taking clear control of the yellow jersey, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for Slater to move up into contention with a strong result in Tahiti.

He’ll have to contend with Brazil’s Jadson Andre and American Brett Simpson to start the event.

It could be a meaningful event for Kauai’s Sebastian Zietz, who has fallen out of the all-important Top 22 after a second-round loss at J-Bay. Zietz is now in a tie for 23rd with Adam Melling. He hadn’t taken a second-round defeat all year before his last event, but it will just be a throwaway come season’s end. Zietz will be going up against Julian Wilson, who sits in third for the year after that memorable final at J-Bay, as well as Aussie Garrett Parkes.

Recalling that final, this is the first time the men’s Championship Tour enters the water since that terrifying encounter Mick Fanning experienced. His up close and personal interaction with a shark was unlike anything ever seen in a World Surf League contest and though it ended with deep sighs of relief and stirring acts of friendship, it is still the last image we have before this contest gets underway.

Fanning comes into Tahiti ranked second and will be taking on local wild card Taumata Puhetini, as well as Melling in their three-man heat. There aren’t many who can look Teahupoo in the eye and not feel intimidated, but if anyone can, it could be Fanning. He just dealt with a shark attack. A heavy wave may not seem as daunting anymore. Plus, Fanning won this event in 2012. He’ll be a sentimental favorite to take the yellow jersey off Adriano de Souza, who holds just a 250-point lead in the standings.

Last year’s world champ, Gabriel Medina, claimed Teahupoo as one of his three wins for the season. But things have not come close to that level of success in 2015. Medina has reached just two quarterfinals in six events and is ranked 15th for the year. The “Brazilian Storm” that had been ushered in is still performing well, but with different faces leading the pack. Brazil boasts five in the top 15 with de Souza (1), Filipe Toledo (4), Italo Ferreira (T-9) and Wiggolly Dantas (13) ahead of the world titleist. Medina had been thought of as the new face of men’s surfing, though he’s been merely an afterthought in 2015.

Hawaii will have its full stable back in action as John John Florence returns from injury. Florence had missed the past two events but he still sits in 14th on the year. He’ll have to take on his Oahu cohort, Freddy Pattacchia Jr., and Bede Durbidge in round one.

Keanu Asing is starting to put together some heats as he has made it past the third round in two of the past three contests to creep past Seabass into the Top 22. Asing will take on Toledo and injury replacement Aritz Aranburu.

Dusty Payne hasn’t yet had the same turnaround as Asing, but he’ll be facing Nat Young and Kai Otton in round one. Payne has lost in the second round at four of this season’s six stops and sits in 35th place. It’s beginning to look as if Payne will need to repeat his dominance at the Triple Crown if he hopes to stay on tour for the 2016 campaign.

Whenever officials deem the conditions satisfactory, Teahupoo should be entertaining as always. It’s a good way for the tour to resume at such an iconic location. No sharks (hopefully), just a great big wave in which to get pitted (hopefully) and spit out (hopefully).

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

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