Eight men, four women, two titles.
We’re approaching finals day at the Drug Aware Margaret River Pro and the fields are trimmed to the select few who have a chance at taking home the year’s second contest victory.
Opportunity awaits for two of the men, who can each put some early distance between themselves and the rest of the field. Current points leader Owen Wright and defending champion John John Florence have each, convincingly, advanced into the quarterfinal round.
Wright is making an early case for one of the greatest comeback seasons in surfing history. After missing all of 2016, the Aussie has shown to be fully healthy and back to his clinical demonstrations of power and flow. He took down the first contest on the Gold Coast and is in prime position to do the same at Margaret River. If he completes that task, this would be two years in a row the same surfer won the first two events after Matt Wilkinson accomplished that feat a season ago.
For Florence, he took third on the Gold Coast and could reclaim the yellow jersey with some different combinations of results. His easiest route would be to simply win the event.
But if both Wright and Florence win their respective quarterfinal matchups against Jack Freestone and Michel Bourez, they will be separating themselves as the targeted contenders at this early stage. Back-to-back semifinal results are nothing to sneeze at, and adding a win (or two) to the ledger would make it that much more difficult for those who have gotten off to a slow start to move into a threatening position.
But if Florence or Wright should fall short, Jordy Smith, Adriano de Souza and Kolohe Andino could emerge in the title conversation. All three remain in the event and all three earned ninth-place results on the Gold Coast. A victory for any would move him into the top three in the rankings.
Freestone is the wild card of the eight remaining contestants. He has wins over Kelly Slater and Conner Coffin so far, and could still face both Wright and Florence. That’s a tough road ahead, but it’s also one with a chance at re-shaping the world title picture. Freestone missed Margaret River with injury last year, so he’s something of an unknown entity there.
On the women’s side, it’s down to the three top Aussies and one surprise American. Defending champ Tyler Wright, current points leader Stephanie Gilmore and perennial standout Sally Fitzgibbons have reached the semifinals along with California’s Sage Erickson.
Erickson rode to her best Championship Tour season with a wave of solid results over the second half of 2016 to finish ninth in the rankings. She has made a few semifinals before, but never a final. To buck that trend, she’ll have to take down Wright, who is hoping to capture her first win of 2017 after five victories a year ago.
Gilmore would be in solid position to go after her seventh career world title if she can pull off another win, making it two straight to start the season. She’ll be taking on Fitzgibbons for a spot in the final.
Things are looking less optimistic for Malia Manuel, who was forced to withdraw from the event prior to her quarterfinal heat. An apparent knee injury caused her decision, leaving some doubt as to what this could mean for upcoming events. Manuel was slated to take on Wright, who got the walk into the semifinal round.
Forecasts indicate a swell returning for the weekend, so the commissioners will almost certainly wait until then to give the green light. Just 10 heats remain to decide the two champs, so there’s no need to rush if the conditions aren’t prime.
When that day comes, I think we’ll be seeing Florence and de Souza in the final, matching up the two most recent world champs. For the women, I have Wright and Fitzgibbons facing off with Fitzgibbons earning the narrow victory.