The 2016 qualifying season hit high gear this week at the Surfest in Newcastle, home to the Maitland and Port Stephens Toyota Pro and the Taggart Women's Pro. The QS6000 events attracted several of the WSL's elite talents, and in pumping surf on the final day of competition CT stars Matt Wilkinson and Sally Fitzgibbons topped their respective fields to take the wins.
After narrowly defeating Conner O'Leary in the Quarterfinal by less than a point, Wilkinson found his groove in the improving conditions. He dominated his semifinal match against Matt Banting by earning two 9-point rides with his lethal backhand.
"I'm so stoked, I didn't really realize how long it had been since I had won something," Wilkinson said. "I've had a few seconds and thirds but it definitely feels good to be on top."
In the Final Wilkinson faced the pride of Italy, Leonardo Fioravanti, who was the surprise package of the week. Fresh off his Semifinal finish at the World Juniors event in Portugal last month, Fioravanti is clearly rolling. He had a tough road to the Final, too, beating Ezekiel Lau, Josh Moniz, Patrick Gudauskas along the way.
Meanwhile the Finals of the Taggart Women's Pro was a showdown between Australian CT stars Stephanie Gilmore and Sally Fitzgibbons.
Gilmore was on fire all week in her return to competition, showing no signs of the injury that kept her sidelined for most of last year. Her best moment came during her semifinal match against Hawaii's Malia Manuel. The two traded blows in the perfect surf, and Manuel would have likely advanced with her two 8-point rides against anyone other than Steph. But Gilmore peaked, earning a 9.5 and a perfect 10 to advance to the final.
"It's been a really good week," Gilmore said. "I feel like we had some really fun waves this event. I definitely peaked in my Semi then couldn't really buy a wave in the Final, but I'm really happy with this result, it's a great start to the year."
Fitzgibbons edged CT rookie Chelsea Tuach in her Quarterfinal heat, then got past Johanne Defay in the Semis. The Final match against Gilmore was a tight one, as conditions began to deteriorate. Fitzgibbons stayed busy, however, catching eight rides in the final compared to three from Gilmore, and that strategy paid off. Fitzgibbons put an end to Steph's impressive roll with a 6.9 and a 7.83.
"This is so good -- such a great start the year," Fitzgibbons said. "Having a win early in the year is awesome for confidence and momentum going into the CT season."
While both Wilkinson and Fitzgibbons will be celebrating Sunday night, they'll be putting their game faces back on for this week's Australian Open.
"I've been coming to Newcastle for years now and it really does feel like a home away from home," Fitzgibbons said afterward.
"Newcastle is so great," added Wilkinson. "We had such good waves today it was awesome. I was getting some good rights so I feel like It's pretty good preparation for Snapper."