As is always the case at Teahupoo, the barrel was key Saturday during the first round of the Billabong Pro Tahiti. There may not be the thick, heavy monsters rolling through that we see in highlight packages or on surf covers, but there were some beautiful opportunities to hide behind the wall long enough for solid scores to start the event.
Two of the day’s top performers were John John Florence and Sebastian Zietz, who each started their heats with flurries to pick up victories and move directly into round three.
Zietz matched up with Josh Kerr and Jadson Andre, but Seabass put the pressure on both quickly. He tucked his way into a pair of narrow barrels, having to crouch but positioned perfectly above the foam ball to ride out clean. Those scores had both his opponents in combination within the first few minutes.
There were even cleaner sets towards the end of the heat and Zietz twice bettered his situation to cruise to a victory on a 16.07 total. That would be the day’s third-highest combined score and was a great way to start this event, which will be another keeper result towards Zietz’s re-qualification.
The day’s top heat total belonged to Florence, who showed more of what we’ve come to expect. It’s becoming cliche to say it, but he looks so casual and at home in any barrel on the planet. Neither Davey Cathels, nor local wild card Hira Teriinatoofa stood a chance once John John dipped into his repertoire.
Most of the day’s barrels were a bit cramped, so riding out was always impressive, though not necessarily a big score. Florence has wave magnetism, so the most perfect rides seem to always find his board and he managed to drop into a pair that allowed him to stand tall and emerge in his triumphant unassuming stance.
Each of his efforts were well into the excellent range and he put up an 18.40 total, leaving little doubt that he’s the favorite to overtake Matt Wilkinson and win the 2016 world title.
That possibility became more likely when Wilkinson was topped in round one by wild card Bruno Santos. It shouldn’t be considered much of an upset because Santos is well-versed at Teahupoo and did damage last year. Pure barrel riding isn’t what Wilko is necessarily known for, so his top ranking doesn’t correlate to being a favorite this week.
The second round will pit Wilkinson against Teriinatoofa in a head-to-head elimination heat that will be the season’s most significant to this point. A Wilko loss would all but assure Florence the yellow jersey and would give John John the inside track to the points lead at year’s end.
Kelly Slater may not be in the world title picture and his first heat was anything but picturesque, but he fought back with a late 9.00 to earn the win over Michel Bourez and Matt Banting. Slater started slowly, wiped out early, had a questionable priority mistake that the judges penalized and still found that magic to get through with a 15.00 total.
In addition to Zietz, Florence, Santos and Slater, most of the heavy hitters were on point on day one. Also winning their heats were Jordy Smith, Italo Ferreira, Kai Otton, Gabriel Medina, Jeremy Flores, Ace Buchan, Kolohe Andino and Adam Melling.
In addition to top-ranked Wilkinson, defending world champion Adriano de Souza, Julian Wilson, Joel Parkinson and Bourez will be among those hoping to avoid early elimination in round two when action resumes.
David Simon can be reached at email@example.com.