Stu Kennedy still can't believe he's here. The 26-year-old from Lennox Head is a replacement surfer at the Quiksilver Pro, competing in the spot left open by the injured Bede Durbidge. And he's going to see more CT opportunities this year with Durbidge on the mend, Fanning taking time off, and Owen Wright officially out for half the year. That means his mission at the moment is clear: "Requalify through the CT," Kennedy says. "That's all I want to do. I feel like I can compete with anyone in waves like this."
Of course, he'll need a decent result with each opportunity. Fortunately for Kenned he's been more than decent this week. Indeed, he's shocked the world…twice: On Sunday he knocked out Kelly Slater with some last-minute heroics. His winning move, an inverted, under-the-lip reverse, landing him on national news in Australia. On Monday he proved that performance was no fluke, taking it to Gabriel Medina with another jaw dropping performance. He busted out his under-the-lip move again, but this time he did it on a wide open face, smack in the middle of a perfect looking wall at Snapper. It was brilliant.
Kennedy has been surfing faster than anyone in the event, riding a SCI-PHI Tomo design shaped by Daniel Thomson. It's most intriguing design feature is its wider tail that's straight through the rail, right down to the final few inches of tail, which morphs quickly into a wider bat tail with channels. The board is working flawlessly at Snapper. His beautifully extended bottom turns are the biggest sign of how well the board works. While its shorter size allows him to whip it around with fury, its straighter rail allows him to hold his edge for as long as he pleases off the bottom, while waiting for his next target to emerge.
"Just wait," Thomson said afterward. "He hasn't even gone to the air yet, and his air game is every bit as good."
Thomson, a solid surfer in his own right, was beaming after the heat, embracing his star pupil with a congratulatory hug. Kennedy has been a faithful rider of Daniel's often eccentric designs for years now, which hasn't always won him fans. Thomson's designs often appear provocative. Most notably his Vanguard model, with its abrupt angular front end. It looks more like a dry-cleaning tool than a surfboard, and Kennedy raised a lot of eyebrows vouching for its principles in QS competition. As well as he often surfed on it, people couldn't get over the fact that the board seemed to be missing a nose. Fortunately, their new SCI-PHI model keeps many of the Vanguard's design principles, but in a more palatable aesthetic from tip to tail.
There's no better way to validate a design than go out and smash world champions while riding it, and that's just one Kennedy has done the past two days. Ironically, the SCI-PHI is one of the three models being released by Kelly Slater's new board company, Slater Designs.
As big as Kennedy's upset win was, Sebastian Zietz, another injury replacement, pulled an even bigger one by defeating hometown favorite Mick Fanning. Their carve-fest battle went to the wire, with Zietz getting the nod thanks to some free-flowing release moves. By advancing into Round 4, the Hawaiian is also making the most of his injury replacement opportunity. He just missed the cut on last year's tour, but insist a comeback is in his future. "I want to be around the best surfers in the world," Zietz said with conviction before the event commenced. "And they're all right here."
While the replacements were shaking things up on the title front, this year's rookie class is also inflicting damage. Conner Coffin, Kanoa Igarashi, and Caio Ibelli all advanced into Round 4. Conner got the better of Italo Ferreira, last year's big surprise package. Ibelli knocked out Josh Kerr, and Igarashi defeated Jeremy Flores.
The rookie road gets tougher from here. Conner will be pitted agains Adriano de Souza in Round 5. Belli's next match is against Parkinson. Igarashi, meanwhile, gets the joy of surfing against John John Florence and Stu Kennedy in Round 4 before having to worry about elimination. And at this stage, every heat is a learning experience.
Then there's the Wild Cards. Adriano de Souza surfed crisp and clean while carving up Mikey Wright, the most aptly named Willd Card in some time. The youngest of the famous Wright clan did his family name proud at Snapper. Mikey has a classic throwback aura: mohawk, front-foot traction pad, Oakley blades. Evidence suggests he broke into a box filled with dad's old 80's surf mags during his formative years, because he's rocking vibes of Martin Potter, Christian Fletcher, Matt Archbold, and Aussie hell-boy Matt Hoy. His surfing looks like it was spawned in biker-bar brawl; it's reckless, radical, and awesome. "All he needs to do is clean a few things up," Martin Potter said afterward. "This performance should give him a ton of confidence for the ‘QS. The kid is going to be a force."
Two surfers have already advanced to the quarterfinals. Matt Wilkinson's vertical backhand attack got him past Adriano de Souza and Caio Ibelli. And Filipe Toledo was on absolute fire all day. In Round 3 Toledo didn't go the air a single time. Instead he put his rail game on display, and it's way more impressive than anyone realized. But during his Round 4 heat, Filipe, the defending champion, couldn't stay grounded. He soared over a good chunk of section, rotating perfectly into his next turn along the way.
Toledo was awarded the season's first 10-point ride for the effort. He backed it up with a 9.20 as well. For all the talk of replacements and rookies, the defending champ is still the man to beat.