Who'll take the 2012 world title? Stab asked four opinion-leaders and received mixed results.
Shaun Tomson, 1977 world surfing champ: As a huge fan of pro surfing, the first event of the year is a favourite – there's as much pressure on each competitor as if it were the end of the year with the world title on the line and it is good to see who has stepped up their game in the off-season. How the top guys perform out of the gate tells a lot about who will be on top at the end of the season. Generally the winner of the tour will come from the four who make the semis – Adriano, Josh, Jordy and Taj – so I'm going to make my selection from that quartet plus Kelly and Joel. A great start usually translates into a great finish as confidence is like a snowball rolling down the mountain, building in power.
So who to pick here? Kelly had a concentration lapse and didn't make the semi but his surfing is as fast, creative and lethal as ever - sharp, focused and tight with an overwhelming mental advantage. His complex tuberides in the first round and blazing, technically-perfect cutbacks were almost beyond mortal comprehension. A win at Bells would most probably give him the enthusiasm to have a full go at the title, but at the moment his motivation is a question mark.
Joel had a horrific pressure melt down against Jordy - he peaked early against Julian and in that heat his surfing was sublime - he has elevated his game and got his air mojo going but he still makes it look all too effortless. His surfing on a big wall can give you chicken skin and his level of perfection has and always will be underscored but here's hoping he never changes his fundamental approach of beautiful technical precision.
Adriano could have easily won the event on his final wave but the judges decided that Taj was the better surfer - maybe not as explosive, but stylistically superior. Adriano has made a quantum leap in his creative air attack but I think he's still millimetres behind in flow and style so he'll be just out of reach.
Josh has a few too many catchy rail changes. His manoeuvres are amazing and exciting but sometimes the whole wave face seems just a speedy transition for the ramp down the line.
Taj has lifted his game and at 33 is laying down some of his most innovative manoeuvres ever and longer, more area-covering carves. He is getting way more thrust off that low, searing bottom turn. His heat against Dane was as good as the Dane/Parko heat of a few years back and definitely the heat of the event. However, the spectre of expectation hangs darkly over Taj and its shadow will deepen as the season continues and the pressure mounts. I would love to see him take the title and hope he can maintain his confidence and keep his eyes on the next ride and not the destination.
I think an outsider will win this year. There is one currently flying stealth and deadly, way below the media radar and the pressure of great expectations.
Three years ago I chatted to Jordy Smith and wrote an article about him called "Man on Fire" when he was the hottest commodity in the world - things sure have changed and during the Quik Pro he wasn't even mentioned as a contender in any of the media or even touted highly in his heats. In fact he has gone from Man on Fire to the invisible man in six months. Back then I wrote:
I really believe he is approaching his surfing differently to anyone else on the tour – his reserves of power are greater than anyone else in the world and he uses his weight to free up the concave under his front foot in effortless surges of speed. His flat-footed distribution of power is a refreshing contrast to the power and release approach and the back heel up style of his competitors. He is full power, all the time.
However Jordy is impatient – even when you speak to him he wants to be somewhere else – there are so many waves to catch, so many deals to do, so many contests to win and so many new lines to carve. But the waves will be there tomorrow and so will his future, so maybe he should take a breath and look around and slow down because it is not always the swiftest that wins the race. When he eventually figures out all the minutiae of competition you can carve this prediction in stone– watch out and take cover because he is going to burn things down.
Jordy had some interesting and cogent comments about his surfing at that time: "In the water I don’t like to think about things too much – I like to try whatever is spur of the moment. Whatever my mind creates, I’m just going to try it. When you think about your manoeuvres too much, it makes it too technical – you have to make it more natural. Don’t force it, just let it happen."
Spur-of-the-moment creativity is where the big points are coming from today – not just an explosively grand manoeuvre, but an unexpected, explosively grand manoeuvre. Obviously that has to be backed up by awesome and fluid carves on the face. Jordy has all the ingredients right now, along with competition savvy and the fact that he flying pressure-free under the radar. The publicity glare has just moved elsewhere and I think Jordy is in the shadows for now - and that invisibility suits him just fine. He seems to be just cruising in his heats, letting it flow and following his own advice. Don’t force it, just let it happen. He is finally fitting into his skin that he was exploding out of last year. He's fit, focused and motivated – while his team mate John John's star has shone brightly over the last few months Jordy's has dimmed. There is a massive extra incentive for him to do well – both from a financial and reputation perspective – it's no fun to be last year's prodigy.
I asked him post-Snapper how he is feeling about the year ahead: "I'm feeling really good and free. It's the best I've felt in years. Can't wait for the next one."
It has taken Jordy three years to figure things out but it seems he now has the pieces in place. Power, creativity, rhythm and speed. Freedom, fitness and enthusiasm. Finally following no one else's advice but his own. Don't force it, just let it happen.
CJ Hobgood, 2001 world champ: "I told the ASP I wanted Taj before the first event, I still stand by that and from an emotional side I want Taj to win. He's had his heart ripped out the most. He's put in a lot of time, absolutely loves surfing and has forgone a family. Taj always starts good at the first event, if he goes good at Bells and can get 'Bong to bag Chopes and have a good run through Europe, Taj will do it.
I do like the fact he keeps his enemies close. Maybe Taj is the person to tell KS to focus on winning events at 50 and forget about titles anymore.
Jordy is way up there. He has the motivation. I did some of the QS when it was contract year and it was cold-blooded. The dude won everything in sight and didn't flinch. If he can get in that I-have-so-much-to-prove-and-the-rest-of-my-life-depends-on-2012, watch out, even with J-Bay off.
Julian will win a WT event this year for sure. Owen and DeSouza will be around at the back end of every event. The talent is real deep that will cause upsets at each event. However, if Slater does the tour your bet will have to be on him. That's where my money is at. I just can't see Slater showing up to Margarets and then not going to Bells, but he will probably miss an event this year too and still have the best chance for a title. The sisters want to hang and the more events Taj brings his lady around the more reasons Kelly has to do the tour. Maybe ask the girls? My bets with Slater, though (Kelly and Taj are dating the Miller sisters, Kalani and Oleema)."
Luke Munro, former world tour surfer and now bookmaker for TopSport, reveals punter's betting habits: "We had a heap of money on Julian after the Breaka qualifying event at Burleigh. All year Kelly Slater has been pretty much friendless in the betting and he's out of $6 now, which is unheard of for Kelly. Both Joel Parkinson and Mick Fanning have been backed heavily but Mick's had the bulk of the betting. There hasn't been much on TB and early we had some money on Gabriel Medina but we can't write a ticket for the bloke at the moment."
And, Mun's own choice? "Personally, I like Julian Wilson. He ticks all the boxes. On paper, match him against anyone at any break and he always looks good."
Jake Paterson, former world tour surfer, Pipe Master, commentator: "It's Taj's year! I feel he is going to put it all together and win it before Hawaii. Why? The best start always helps, he's riding boards he believes he can win a title on, he's the fittest he's ever been and he's still riding fixed-fins. He will win! What's changed from previous years? TB will win plain and simple. I think he does have the head space finally. Last year he tried too hard against people he really wanted to beat, but I think now he knows it's the same game plan against everyone."