Who's gonna beat this competitive beast? Photos: WSL
It Will Take A Miracle (Or John John) To Stop Medina At Pipe
Italo's pre-season efforts were admirable but ultimately ineffectual against the Tour's true alpha.
Italo Ferreira didn’t want to come to Hawaii early this year.
He wanted to stay in Brazil and train his ass off until the week leading up to the Pipe Masters, then fly over and dominate the field.
A conversation with his Pipe coach, Shane Dorian, convinced Italo otherwise.
“I told him, ‘I really think it would be good for you to come over here as soon as possible,’” Shane said in the WSL booth. “Because every time you surf out here, every time you sit in the pack and pick a wave off the most intense lineup in the world, it builds your confidence. And it’s not just about riding the wave or figuring out where to sit—it’s that, by spending time at Pipe, you start to feel like you deserve to be there.”
And so, like a strident frat boy, Italo came early. Almost a month early, to be exact. And he surfed Pipe every day it broke. When it didn’t break, he surfed Off the Wall, or perhaps Ehukai. While it's impossible to verify, I’m relatively certain Italo never strayed from the strip of sand and reef between Rockpiles and Pupukea.
Like Jack Robinson—who came to Hawaii with the goal of qualifying for the CT, and achieved that goal by surfing exclusively at Haleiwa and Sunset through his first month on the North Shore, culminating with a win at the Vans World Cup—Italo’s focus was singular. And whether it was 11-foot Pipe or three-foot OTW, the Brazilian has been an undeniable force in the lineup.
None of this mattered when Italo came up against the Trials winner and most competitive man in surfing, Maui’s Billy Kemper.
While Italo continued his standard freesurfing practice of pursuing wave quantity over quality, Billy chose his waves more carefully, stumbling early but eventually sliding beneath a towering teepee and escaping before its collapse. While not a traditionally throaty Backdoor wedge, Billy’s late takeoff left him in a position to negotiate the foam ball, which he did rather adeptly, resulting in a well-deserved 9.43. Kemper then backed that wave up with another doggy door exit and pushed Italo into a deep second.
This wasn’t an especially bad performance for the World Number one, but if a local wildcard is beating you by five points in the opening round, you’re not exactly on a World Title trajectory. Especially with Medina on your heels.
Speaking of the 2x Champ—who, for context, didn’t arrive in Hawaii until a week before the event—his heat provided the highest heat total and most dominating performance of the day.
On any given wave, no matter how deep he happened to be, it seemed improbable that Gabby would fall off his surfboard. With a square, utilitarian stance and eyes like a serpent, Medina gave one, two, occasionally three pumps and pushed through any bend or blemish in his path.
Keep in mind that Medina must beat Italo by just one round in this event to win the Title (assuming that all the other contenders don’t beat Medina). Based on today’s performances, it’s clear that, while Italo wears the yellow jersey, Gabby is the true favorite to win the World Championship.
Other notes from the day:
Filipe Toledo appeared comfortable and engaged in his heat this morning. There’s been plenty of speculation around Toledo’s willingness to "send it" at Pipe, but today’s performance could only be seen as positive. We’ll see if he can maintain that confidence throughout the week as the swell increases.
The other two contenders, Jordy Smith and Kolohe Andino, both had low-scoring heats today, due more to tricky conditions than anything inherent in their performances. Kolohe won, Jordy got second, but they’ll both need to do better if they want a chance at the crown.
At the start of the day, the lowest-ranked full-time CT surfer, Ricardo Christie, still had a chance to requalify with a win at Pipe. Unfortunately for Ric, an ill-fated kickout resulted in a blown fin box, 10 stitches to the knee, and a Round 1 loss. Ric’s self-flagellation allowed Deivid Silva to progress to Round 3, which subsequently increased Morgan Cibilic’s chances of retaining his 2020 Tour slot.
Ricardo went beyond the call of duty when he decided to strap up his wound and compete in Round 2. After one especially hollow Backdoor cave, Ricardo encountered a quickly closing end section—similar to the one that caused his injury earlier in the day. Rather than flying into the stratosphere, Ric took a more considered approach, grabbing his board as he flew over the lip and guiding it away from his wounded leg. The Kiwi managed to slip past the 2x Pipe Master Jeremy Flores in that heat, which would be significantly more meaningful if Peterson Crisanto hadn’t advanced to Round 3, eliminating any hope of Ricardo requalifying in the process.
Meanwhile, Zeke Lau earned the highest score of the day (9.73) for a surprise no-hand pump on a girthy Pipe left. As Billy Kemper pointed out, the judges really could have given it a 10—this was an exceptional performance on a quality wave. This heat win will help Zeke's cause, but if the Hawaiian wants a spot on the 2020 CT, he’ll need at least three more of them throughout the event.
In a perplexing moment, Wade Carmichael rode Willian Cardoso’s old surfboard in his heat today and earned the expected result (third). Well, maybe that’s not entirely true. Wade did lose his first heat today, but as it turns out, Avoca Jesus also signed with Rusty Australia yesterday afternoon, resulting in the impossible-to-miss R-dot logo on his nose. He’ll be with the iconic power brand until 2022. Big ups to New Occy.
John Florence competed for the first time since Brazil, today, in a shockingly slow Round 1 match. Due to a positioning error, John didn’t catch a wave until the heat's seven-minute mark, and his last-ditch efforts, while impressive, proved futile. John’s final wave would have been enough to see him progress, had he not blatantly burned the in-priority surfer, Ace Buchan, in the process.
John redeemed himself in Round 2, catching a wave in the opening minute and neatly stacking his scores throughout the heat like a small but sturdy log cabin. It was fascinating to see John’s blatant shift in strategy and the immediate success it provided.
John will face Zeke Lau in Round 3, which is fascinating on multiple levels. John and Zeke have a sordid past, particularly with their Bells heat in 2018. John is also injured, which will make him an easier target for Zeke's potential tactics. And, Zeke needs at least a quarter at Pipe to have a chance at requalification, so he's gonna do anything it takes to win. Anything.
Oh, and did we mention that John is on Medina's side of the draw? He might be the only one capable of stopping the Terminator's roll. Let's keep our eyes on that space.
Meanwhile, the other man chasing John down, 47-year-old Kelly Slater, got second in his Round 1 heat to progress to Round 3. Kelly was gracious in his post-heat interview, saying that the fact John is still ahead of him after all this time just goes to show how dominant the Hawaiian was at the start of the season. Kelly went onto say that the Olympics were in the back of his mind but that he’s ultimately just trying to have a good event.
At this point, the chances of Slater retiring after Pipe seem to hover around 10%. Or at least that’s just what he wants us to think.
Leonardo Fioravanti lost in the first elimination heat, meaning he’ll have to rely on a WSL injury wildcard if he wants to compete on the 2020 Tour. However, Renato Hickel’s explanation of the wildcard selection process seems to benefit Adriano de Souza, a past World Champion, and Mikey Wright, who finished 12th on last year’s CT despite not even being a full-time competitor, rather than the multi-lingual Italian.
The swell came up in the day's dying hours, and Italo Ferriera was the first surfer in the water after the final horn blew.
Keeping plugging away kid. Ya never know.