Manuel runs the gamut to Australian Open victory

They say to be the best, you need to beat the best. Malia Manuel brought that saying to fruition when she took down the defending world champion on her way to the Australian Open of Surfing title, Saturday at Manly Beach.

It was part of a huge finals day during the year’s second QS 6,000 contest, which also featured a couple of repeat performances in both the men’s and women’s draws.

Manuel isn’t new to big results in Qualifying Series events or this contest, in particular. She knows the terrain well and was a finalist at this very spot last season. But this one seemed extra special, not only because of how she finished, but how she got there. Her path through the field was the most challenging of any wahine’s and being able to navigate onto the podium was a heavy statement.

Manuel denied Johanne Defay her second straight QS 6,000 event win, doing so with a huge comeback performance. She followed up an 8.57 wave with a 9.30 to jump into first place and force Defay to need an almost perfect score. This was after Defay had steadily built a solid lead for a 16.16 total which, all of a sudden, shrunk to an almost combination situation. From there, Manuel held her off to pick up the top prize.

Defay has been on fire in Australia to start the season, which could be a sign that she’s primed to challenge for a world title. Her first two results all but lock up a top six spot on the QS rankings at year’s end, so she can focus completely on winning Championship Tour contests and not have to worry about results. That’s an enviable position to be in.

But Manuel’s win should also propel her into the world title discussion, where she seemed to enter a few years back during her fifth-place Championship Tour season. Only a few names, including defending world champ Tyler Wright, have seemed worthy of such distinction of late. That could rapidly be changing.

In her home country, Wright seemed to be the favorite to take home this Australian Open title and put those 6,000 QS points in her back pocket — not that she’s likely to need them. But her semifinal heat against Manuel didn’t net the result she was hoping for or the one that many were expecting.

Wright got off to the stronger start, but Manuel stayed focused and continued to compete for waves. Facing a deficit for most of the heat, Manuel found her best effort on her final attempt and locked in an 8.33 score to overtake Wright, 15.83 to 15.03.

It’s a matchup that hasn’t always been a strong one for Malia. Not that there are many competitors who have had any consistent success against Wright, but Manuel doesn’t have many heat wins to look back on to gain insight in terms of tactics. This time she mainly relied on her skill and determination to pull off the upset.

Manuel also had to defeat Sally Fitzgibbons in the quarterfinals, which was aided by a fast start. Unlike her following heat against Wright, Manuel took control quickly and earned a 14.93 total with two of her first three waves. Fitzgibbons never got the momentum and had to settle for the fifth-place result.

Tatiana Weston-Webb was off to a strong start in this contest, but she fell in the quarters, narrowly edged by upset minded Pauline Ado, 12.54 to 12.44. Tati has back-to-back fifth-place results to start the QS season. She’ll need one or two better to feel comfortable, but it’s still been an impressive start to 2017.

On the men’s side, Jesse Mendes made it two straight QS 6,000 finals appearances. Just like Defay, Mendes also reached the final at last week’s Surfest. Though he’s clearly upped his game, these performances are still a bit of a surprise. This sets him up for a very real opportunity to qualify for the 2018 world tour, which seemed like a long shot only a few weeks back.

But it was truly Malia’s week as she ran the gamut of the toughest competitors in the women’s draw, coming out on top with a title she’ll cherish.

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