Huge day stops short of Seabass-Slater matchup

Day two of the Billabong Pro Tahiti provided a much more classic image of the world-famous wave, thus creating the types of rides and battles we’ve come to expect at Teahupoo. The day’s highlight was what became the favorite for “heat of the year” in a round three matchup between John John Florence and Gabriel Medina. It lived up to the expectations but ended in a disappointing exit for Florence, despite his huge numbers.

Eight of the 12 third-round heats were completed, though a critical matchup between Sebastian Zietz and Kelly Slater is still on tap when the conditions allow action to resume. Zietz is guaranteed at least an equal 13th result, but he will need to add a few top 10s into his resume if he is to move securely back into the Top 22 for re-qualification. For Slater, who sits in sixth position on the Championship Tour leader board, earlier eliminations in round three give him a shot to make a major move up the rankings if he’s able to get past Seabass and come away with a finals day result.

The yellow jersey has been worn by Adriano de Souza for the majority of the season, but that could certainly change very soon. The Brazilian came up against a Teahupoo specialist in countryman Bruno Santos in round three. Theirs was a somewhat one-sided heat as Santos picked up an 8.43 and quickly backed it up with a 7.77 to put de Souza behind the eight ball. Santos showed the ease with which he has become a three-time winner of the Pro Tahiti Trials and a winner in the main event back in 2008. He clearly knows this wave better than most and gave the current points leader all he could handle. de Souza held a miniscule lead over Mick Fanning before the contest, so any early exit was going to be tough to withstand, but it won’t be Fanning who dons the yellow jersey at the next stop.

That’s because Fanning faced an identical fate when he was topped by Spain’s Aritz Aranburu. It was a very un-Fanning-like heat, in that he fell behind quickly and was forced to wait out some set waves instead of being active early as he is wont to do. Conversely, Aranburu looked very comfortable and snagged a pair of barrels to have Fanning in a combination position for most of the heat. Aranburu came to Tahiti as an injury replacement, but he can be very dangerous in big waves.

Both de Souza and Fanning had what would be considered weak opponents based on seeding, but Teahupoo can even things out for those who are used to its size and scope. Santos and Aranburu showed they aren’t just interested in the Tahitian scenery and have thrown a pair of wrenches into the world title race.

The Florence-Medina heat is one that needs to be seen to be fully appreciated. For some perspective, each surfer had a nine-point ride that didn’t factor into their score line. While I don’t think it rivals the Florence-Slater semifinal from last year’s Pro Tahiti, it probably surpasses everything in recent memory other than the Dusty Payne vs. Julian Wilson final from last year’s Reef Hawaiian Pro. Medina looked like his 2014 self as he threw everything he had at the wave while going up against perhaps the best tube rider in the world. The defending champ answered a lot of questions last season when he won here at Teahupoo. He may be re-answering them with this performance after an inconsistent start to his year.

Florence was as majestic as expected. There’s only so much you can do when a 9.57 and a 9.27 aren’t enough to get through. But despite that elite performance, this will end up as just an equal 13th result on his season scorecard. It’s his third such result of the year in addition to a ninth, a second and a pair of injury withdrawals. He’s not quite in the danger zone yet, but it doesn’t seem like Florence is going to impact the world title race other than a spoiler role.

Dusty Payne was hoping to advance beyond round three for the first time all season, but he came up against Owen Wright, who is back in the world title mix. Wright was phenomenal, scoring a pair of nines. Despite a 15.70 score of his own, Payne was just outclassed.

Zietz got himself into round three with a head-to-head win against Keanu Asing in round two. It was unfortunate the pair from Hawaii had to face off in such an early elimination heat, but Kauai’s representative barely got the best of the rookie. Zietz, who always receives Andy Irons comparisons in big waves, had the more consistent heat. But Asing still had an opportunity late, coming up just shy despite earning the top wave of the heat. It’s the first second-round loss for him in four events.

For Seabass, it will move him back into the Top 22 for now. But he can give himself a much greater boost with a third-round win over Slater. That’s a tall order and one that can’t be expected, but he is capable of pulling the upset. His fearlessness and finesse in big waves will have to be at their apex if he is to overcome Slater’s expertise.

A big swell is expected to come back through Tahiti and allow for more ideal conditions. If officials deem it suitable, action will resume today at 8 a.m. HT.

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

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