Flores wins Chopes, world title race more muddled than ever

Somehow, some way, Adriano de Souza managed to retain the gold jersey for one more event. But the Billabong Pro Tahiti crowned a new champion on Tuesday, cluttering the world title race even more than it already had been.

France’s Jeremy Flores came through with a huge result in one of his best career performances, battling Teahupoo with reckless abandon and notching just the second victory of his Championship Tour career. The first came at the 2010 Pipe Masters, so Flores is clearly comfortable in waves of consequence.

The victory bumps him up to seventh place for the season, which would be his best CT finish if he’s able to maintain that level of success. But the real story begins just a bit further up the leader board. The top five surfers all sit within 2,000 points of one another as we look towards the final four contests of the season. Any one of those five, as well as a few more who are within striking distance, can map out a legitimate path to the world title.

Australia’s Owen Wright had a chance to exit Teahupoo with the gold jersey in his locker, but his semifinal loss to Gabriel Medina places him in third for the season — just 550 points behind de Souza and 300 points behind second-place Mick Fanning. Wright surfed a great event, as is expected of him in barrels and huge set waves. He had been unbeaten in his first four heats, winning a pair of three-man battles and knocking out Maui’s Dusty Payne and Brazil’s Italo Ferreira in man-on-man contests.

But Medina capitalized on wave selection in their semifinal matchup to move into the finals for the first time this season. Last year’s world champion was also the Pro Tahiti’s defending champ, but he was unable to match Flores, who seemed to be the man of destiny on Tuesday.

It was a murderer’s row of opponents for Flores, who eliminated Joel Parkinson, Wiggolly Dantas, Kelly Slater and C.J. Hobgood before unseating Medina. He is emblematic of the 2015 trend, which continues to illustrate that anyone can win. We have had seven contests this season and crowned a champ in six of them — no winner was named at Jeffreys Bay after the shark incident. Those six contest victories have been earned by five different surfers. Only Filipe Toledo has won twice.

It’s the closest and most up-for-grabs CT season that I can ever remember and nobody seems to be taking the reins. Both de Souza and Fanning lost in round three, as did fourth-ranked Julian Wilson. Toledo reached round five but was a virtual no-show in his matchup with Ferreira, not riding a single wave on his way to a 15.00 to zero defeat.

Slater entered in sixth and will remain in sixth, reaching the quarterfinals but losing a close heat to Flores. Slater has reached just one semifinal through seven events, but here he is just 6,550 points out of first place with some of his best opportunities still ahead of him. Trestles comes up next where Slater won three straight times (2010-2012) and where he took third last year. Plus, he still has Pipeline to close out the season. If nobody wants to seize the lead before then, they’re leaving the greatest of all time squarely in the mix.

Sebastian Zietz’s trip to the third round bumped him back up a pair of places and again into the Top 22. He is currently in 21st for the season, one spot ahead of Oahu’s Keanu Asing, who fell in round two. They, along with John John Florence in 16th, would all re-qualify if the season ended today. On the outside looking in would be Freddy Patacchia Jr. (28th) and Payne (34th).

But they all still have work to do and opportunities to strike. After Trestles, the men’s CT heads to Europe for stops in France and Portugal before ending on Oahu to cap off the Triple Crown. A lot of surfers will have a lot to say between then and now. Parity is ruling the tour, which means nothing could be decided until the very last wave is ridden.

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

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