Three contests, three different winners.
Leaving Australia with the yellow jersey was a mission accomplished for John John Florence, but it feels like it could have been so much more if not for an unlikely nemesis.
Florence appeared to be setting up for back-to-back event wins as the heats forged along during finals day of the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach. He was piling up nine-point rides, tagging the lip, using his air game, capitalizing on every opportunity.
But the semifinals pitted Florence with a sophomore who refuses to bow down to the throne of John John. Brazil’s Caio Ibelli, the 2016 Rookie of the Year, entered the matchup with two wins in three prior heats against the reigning world champ, including a third-round win last year at Bells. Ibelli surfed like a guy with nothing to lose and fought through a typical high-level John John performance.
Needing an 8.54 to turn the heat in the closing minute, Ibelli got his chance and went to town on another big right that rolled through the lineup. He didn’t leave any scoring potential in his wake and finished the ride with a prideful yelp towards the beach.
The two competitors had exited the water before either knew who would be surfing the final. When the score came through as an 8.73, Ibelli shot out of a cannon from the sand to the surfers’ area and began to mentally prepare for his chance to ring the prestigious bell.
He surfed another fantastic final, but Jordy Smith outpointed him 18.90 to 17.46 for his first contest win since last year’s Hurley Pro at Trestles.
For Ibelli, the runner-up result vaults him up into seventh place for the 2017 season. He entered Bells Beach as a long shot but proved time and time again that he can showcase big carves as well as just about anyone. I certainly expected him to be a non-factor at this event but Ibelli showed just how good he is and what we should expect from him in the future.
For Florence, the third-place result is enough to hold the yellow jersey heading into Rio. But he now has Smith on his heels in second place. With Owen Wright, Florence and Smith each taking one contest during the Aussie leg, it’s the secondary results that are determining the current standings. But those are our top three as the tour moves to Brazil.
Sebastian Zietz moved up from 14th to 10th for the season, reaching the fifth round with a pair of clutch wins over Leonardo Fioravanti and Julian Wilson.
Other than Ibelli, Ezekiel Lau was the biggest mover at Bells. He jumped 11 spots in the rankings into 11th overall by reaching the semifinals. Lau earned his best Championship Tour result during this rookie campaign by knocking off Conner Coffin, Kolohe Andino, topping Filipe Toledo and Adriano de Souza in a three-man heat, then knocking out Toledo in the quarterfinals before falling to Smith, 15.63 to 15.17.
To say the world title race is wide open would be disingenuous. John John is the best surfer in the world and if he’s on his game, he’s the favorite to repeat as world champ. But Ibelli helped to keep things interesting for now and both Wright and Smith are thankful that he did.
David Simon can be reached at email@example.com.