It was essentially a head-to-head matchup for the yellow jersey.
When John John Florence and Jordy Smith found themselves facing one another in Sunday’s Billabong Pro Tahiti quarterfinals, the winner would be set up well to have the (narrow) edge in the world title race. Year-in, year-out, Smith is one of the world’s greatest talents, but he’s certainly an underdog against Florence at Teahupoo.
But the South African didn’t let history or track records get in his head. In need of a 6.61 to turn the heat, Smith used his priority properly at the seven-minute mark and stalled his way into a good-sized barrel. He stayed deep in the narrow pit and came out fairly clean, adding a pair of turns on the end to maximize his potential and show off his versatility.
An 8.00 sent him into first place and swung the pendulum back, putting the pressure on Florence. Needing a 7.51 to move on into the semifinals, Florence watched the ocean snub its nose in his direction and go completely quiet until the horn sounded. Normally. the reef spins some magic his way, as Florence almost always sees an opportune moment materialize.
But it wasn’t to be on Sunday, which guaranteed Smith the top spot in the rankings.
Despite the loss and fifth-place result, Florence remains in second place on the season. Previous points leader, Matt Wilkinson, dropped to third place. Owen Wright remained in fourth and Julian Wilson, who picked up the stunning win in the final against Gabriel Medina, now sits in fifth for the year.
As has been the case all along, the top five is incredibly close and congested. Wilson jumps into the group on the heels of three straight strong results after a middling start and Medina, who made his first final of the season, is still lurking in seventh.
But in terms of Florence, the middle portion of his season has felt a bit like seeing the Patriots held to field goals for much of an NFL game. They’re moving the ball and putting some points on the board, but there’s that sense that they’re just waiting to strike when it matters most.
Though he’s now gone four straight contests without reaching the semifinals, Florence remains the shark actively circling the leaderboard. Whoever has the yellow jersey will be constantly on the lookout for his fins.
He only has one world title to his credit, so it may seem blasphemous on its surface, but Florence is quickly creeping into that all-time great territory.
He’s Tom Brady down by four with 1:30 remaining or Michael Jordan down by one with 12 seconds left. He hasn’t been at his best, he’s had some bad luck and yet here he is in second place. He may be chasing someone else, but no matter what his point total looks like, he’s going to be considered the favorite until Pipeline concludes and the rankings say otherwise.
David Simon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.