Florence and Medina Turn Up the Heat on Day 1 at Teahupo'o

Chris Mauro

Saturday was a rough day by World Tour standards. Sadly, Teahupo'o wasn't 10-feet and perfect. It wasn't even half that. But with the long-range forecast looking pretty darn sketchy, WSL Commissioner Kieren Perrow ordered the world's best to jump into Tahiti's crystal clear water and settle for some caverns that they actually had to crouch in.

Post Show Breakdown: The WSL desk team discusses all that unfolded on Day 1 of the Billabong Pro Tahiti.

In all seriousness, it really was sketchy in the early going. When Heat 1 took to the water, the small pulse of swell that was predicted to arrive Saturday morning was tardy. Dusty Payne paid the price, too. He sat through the entire 35-minute heat without riding a wave.

Meanwhile, Jordy Smith won it with a grand total of 8 points -- not a record low for a winning heat -- but close. Things looked bleak.

The WSL desk team tackles the big title race question, and the looming threat of No. 3-ranked Gabriel Medina.

Then a few minutes into Heat 2 it happened. Italo Ferreira spotted a decent chunk of ocean moving his way. He paddled deep, scratched hard, dropped in clean, and stood tall as he traveled through a beautiful, bright green pit. By 99.9 percent of worldly measures, it was a perfect wave.

Teahupo'o, however, represents that other .1 percent. And given what we know it's capable of creating, Italo's barrel was a pretty ho-hum 7.5. It was at that very moment when anyone else watching in say, America, Europe, Brazil or Australia realized something quite cruel: even the worst day at Teahupo'o is still Teahupo'o, and that's pretty damn good.

John John Florence bagged two 9-point rides in his Round One heat, easily taking the highest heat score of the day.

Things actually started to get better from there. The swell picked up and so too did the action, just in time for this year's cadre of title contenders to take center stage.

Italo was the first of many favorites to take control. He was soon backed by Gabriel Medina, who, by the way, in his four appearances at Teahupo'o, has become the most consistent performer here. Medina is aiming for his third straight trip to the Tahiti Final, and he's off to a great start after his commanding Round One win over Conner Coffin and Alex Ribeiro.

Opening Day Highlights from Tahiti
Behold, an average day at Teahupo'o for the Billabong Pro Tahiti.

On Thursday, Medina confessed to #Tournotes director Peter King his only real strategy for this event: "Beat John," he said. Interestingly, John John was right there listening, and they shared an awkward laugh. Gabe's point was obvious. He see's John John Florence as his biggest threat to his next world title.

And based on what we saw today Medina is spot on, because Florence went bonkers in his heat. He made average Teahupo'o look like perfect Pipe -- scoring no-grab barrels and getting spit out of perfect tubes. He bagged two 9-point rides, and racked up the highest heat score of the day, with 18.40 points.

Kelly Slater had to come from behind against Michel Bourez to earn his Round One win.

While Gabe has proven to be the more consistent performer, John John has consistently outperformed. He's got Gabe beat on average heat score (AHS) at Teahupo'o, and actually pushed that average up today.

Meanwhile, tour frontrunner Matt Wilkinson had the misfortune of drawing wildcard Bruno Santos in his first heat. Given the fact that Bruno is a former winner of this event and a trials winner many times over, it's pretty obvious he's no underdog. And he proved it again today with a win over Wilko. So yes, the title race is already getting tighter when you consider that Wilko is on his way to the do-or-die Round Two.

Medina's solid performance seemed to inspire Florence, who was in the very next heat.

Of course there are plenty of other threats looming for these guys. Kelly Slater was his usual cavalier self Saturday: arriving late, sleeping in, not warming up, and wiping out on his first wave. But he still managed to claw his way to a win over Michel Bourez after a late charge.

Granted, this hasn't been Kelly's year. But he's still the reigning king at Teahupo'o, and can't be ignored.

John John Florence made the trying conditions look easy when he took to the lineup.

Former winners Ace Buchan and Jeremy Flores both won their heats with impressive surfing as well. While Kolohe Andino, Sebastian Zietz, and Adam Melling all advanced directly to Round Three with solid displays.

All eyes will be on Wilko as we head for Round Two. If he's going to stay in this title race he'll need to get past Tahitian wildcard Hira Teriinatoofa.

The Billabong Pro broadcast resumes Sunday morning at 7:30 a.m TAHT.