Stephanie Gilmore is surfing better than ever since returning from injury, but the scoreboard isn't showing it yet.
On Thursday the six-time world champion and three-time winner at Bells rode the first wave of the entire event, and opened strong with an 8.0. Unfortunately, she never got a good follow up in the tricky onshore conditions.
Meanwhile, South Africa's Bianca Buitendag, a tall powerful goofyfooter, put her big backhand attack to work delivering solid spray-chucking turns, and nabbed a narrow upset win over Gilmore. As a result Gilmore will face a rare Round 2 elimination for the second time in a row.
Interestingly, Gilmore's final score fell shy of what she needed...which was debatable. And she suffered from a similar type of call during Round One at Snapper. That one lit a fire in Steph. Her Round 2 performance on the Gold Coast was one for the ages. Translation: Steph fans may want to get some popcorn and the DVR ready for her next heat against Laura Enever.
Malia Manuel was responsible for the other upset of the day, knocking two-time Bells winner Sally Fitzgibbons into the sudden-death situation. Manuel looked seamless, powerful, stylish and aggressive during the heat, which was well-surfed showdown between her, Sally, and a late-charging Alessa Quizon.
Manuel has spent a few years just trying to prove to herself that she belongs on the tour, which is ridiculous, because she's surfing like a Title contender. If her swagger can catch up with her surfing, the 22-year-old is going to be dangerous this year.
The back-to-back upsets in the opening heats seemed to foreshadow more rankings upheaval ahead, but Carissa Moore got the surfing world back on its proper axis in the heat that followed, and she was backed up by other top seeds like Courtney Conlogue, Tyler Wright. All three ladies lived up to expectations with smooth, powerful surfing marked by beautifully drawn lines.
One thing that's already clear with the ladies this year is the margin for error is shrinking, even for the A-listers. The increase in talent is running deeper than ever, and the gap that once separated the A-listers from the Also Rans is shrinking.
That factor is sure to play into the title race this year. Heck, it may have already.