Matt Wilkinson had by far the toughest road today. Just ask Kelly Slater.
The big problem with being World No. 1 when you land in locations like Teahupo'o, J-Bay, or Pipeline is the fierce brand of wildcards that emerge. And few are as fierce as Brazilian Bruno Santos.
For the second time in three days, Wilko had to face the former event winner. This time in the do-or-die Round Three. Considering that the Jeep leader's yellow jersey was at stake, it was a cruel twist of fate.
Wilkinson has been stalked prey for the past few events. After making the finals in Fiji he seemed back in control. But a bad slip-up in J-Bay, plus today's brutal loss to Bruno, have cost him big. Now John John Florence and Gabriel Medina are sprinting for the door that Wilko's elimination leaves wide open.
Wilkinson played the waiting game, and wait he did in the slow-moving heat. Bruno's best scores came underneath priority, on smaller insiders, and the sets Wilko was waiting for never came. He refused to chase insiders. He figured he couldn't beat Bruno without nabbing sets, and while he may have figured wrong this time, he went down sticking to his game plan.
John John Florence was waiting patiently in the channel, with a sinister smile on his face. He had the very next heat against rookie Alex Ribeiro. And while John flashed a bit of his usual brilliance, the situation remained in doubt all the way through. His high score was only a 7.50, which is low for the Hawaiian wunderkind.
Nevertheless, he won, and moved one more win away from taking Wilko's yellow jersey.
A few heats later Medina held serve, and followed Florence into Round Four.
Then the waves got better. In fact, aside from a couple of days in Fiji, Monday may have produced the best surf we've seen all year for competition. That's the power of garden-variety Teahupo'o.
Round Three was filled with plenty of intriguing pairings, and Wilko wasn't the only title contender to fall. Keanu Asing earned a gutsy win over Italo Ferreira in the first heat of the day. Asing gave a spirited post-heat interview too, where he made it clear that his job and his lifestyle are on the line.
Josh Kerr, Julian Wilson, and Joel Parkinson all turned in stellar backside performances in Round Four, but it was Wilson who was the star. Just a few hours prior, Wilson had a breakthrough in his Round Three heat against defending champ Jeremy Flores. For most of their battle, Flores seemed to have Wilson on the ropes. That is, until the closing moments of their match: Needing a high 8, Wilson somehow dialed up a low 9, and proceeded to carry that magic right through Round Four. He defeated Parkinson and Medina to earn a fast-track trip to the Quarterfinals.
But the heat of the day was easily the Round Four match between Kelly Slater, Bruno Santos, and Adrian Buchan: three former winners at Teahupo'o. Within seconds of their heat starting the wind turned offshore, and the lineup was groomed to perfection.
Bruno got things started with a deep barrel that earned him a 9.00, and Slater responded with a stylish 8.17 -- not a bad opening exchange. But they were just warming up. Bruno outdid himself, nabbing a 9.30. Ace managed a mid-range 6.00. Then Kelly Slater took off on a smaller insider and pulled in deep, disappearing twice from view. Even people in the channel couldn't see him, as he was buried behind the foam ball. Somehow, he navigated his way out, and was awarded a perfect 10.
Except it wasn't. Slater's 18.17 points gave him the lead, but Bruno wasn't done. He came firing back with an 8.83, which was enough for him to steal an impressive win from Kelly, and a another trip to the Quarterfinals.
Florence watched it all go down from the sidelines. He looked inspired, too. If he could beat Josh Kerr and Jadson Andre in the next heat, he'd be be going to bed with the yellow jersey. But Jadson and Josh had no intention of rolling over, and Mother Nature flipped the switch on Florence. Like Wilko, he waited for sets that never came. Meanwhile, Josh and Jadson were grinding away on the inside. Kerr took the slow-moving heat with an 11-point total.
By finishing last, John John was relegated to a Round Five match with Joel Parkinson, and Parko now represents the last line of defense for Wilko's yellow jersey.
Given the depth of talent remaining, this event is far from over. And from what we saw today the world title race is just getting started. So hold on, because this is going to get interesting.