NewsAnditi Women's ProReef Heazlewood

Maitland and Port Stephens Toyota Pro Kicks Off at Merewether Beach

Crowd watching the round of 144 at the Maitland & Port Stephens Toyota Pro Newcastle, and Merewether in particular, have roots that run deep in surfing. WSL / Grant Sproule

The 2017 Maitland and Port Stephens Toyota Pro has kicked off today at the beautiful Merewether Beach in Newcastle. The event runs in conjunction with Newcastle's Surfest, and is the first WSL Qualifying Series (QS) 6,000-level event of the season. As a 6,000- level event (packing a possible 6,000 points for QS rankings), it has attracted a huge international field, including some of the sport's biggest names. Day 1 saw the completion of Men's Round One in clean, two- foot waves. The Anditi Women's Pro was off for the day and will likely get underway tomorrow.

Still, a few of the top surfers in the Anditi draw came down to the beach to check out the action. Among them was six-time World Champion Stephanie Gilmore. Gilmore won the event in 2008 and finished runner-up last year.

Sally Fitzgibbons and Steph Gilmore holding their WSL CT jerserys at Merewether Beach, Newcastle Last year's finalists from the women's event will be tough to beat when they hit the water in Round Three. WSL / Grant Sproule

"It's great to be back in Newcastle," Gilmore said. "I love coming back to compete here, it's such a cool City. I had a good break after Hawaii and spent some time away from surfing, which was nice. Now it is time to get back in the swing of things and there isn't a better place for that than the Anditi Women's Pro here at Merewether."

Jack Freestone is another Championship Tour (CT) competitor who was in the mix at Merewether Monday. After just making it back onto the Championship Tour for 2017 (he finished at No. 10 on the QS last year), the Gold Coaster has a lot to prove this season. Freestone said that he put a lot of pressure on himself in 2016 and hopes to go into this year as a more relaxed competitor.

Jack Freestone placed second in Heat 11 of Round One of the Billabong Pipe Masters at Pipeine, Oahu, Hawaii. Jack Freestone is feeling the best he has in over a year. WSL / Tony Heff

"Last year was good for me but I'm hoping for a more solid year in 2017," Freestone said. "I want to try and relax and enjoy myself a bit more and I think if I can do that the results will follow. I'm really looking forward to getting out there to compete."

Less than six months after retiring from the elite Championship Tour (CT), Kai Otton made a return to competition at Merewether in Round One of the Maitland and Port Stephens Toyota Pro. Although Otton is not chasing qualification points, he still surfed with the attitude of someone who is in it to win it. With just two waves, he posted a heat total of 13.33 -- enough to progress into Round Two.

Kai Otton competing in the round of 144 at the Maitland & Port Stephens Toyota Pro Kai Otton, having fun with his time off. WSL / Grant Sproule

"Newcastle is only up the road for me so it was a pretty easy decision to come up and compete," Otton said. "I thought I might have been seeded into a later round so it was a bit of shock when I saw that I was competing in Round One. Competing for me is fun so that's why I'm here, to have fun. I'm certainly not chasing the QS, it's just close to home so it was a no-brainer to come."

In contrast to Otton, another local, Jackson Baker, hasn't had the best luck at his home event, having never won a heat. But on Monday, he paddled out with changing that track record in mind, and it worked. Baker posted a heat total of 12.94 to progress into Round Two, where he will meet fellow Newcastle local Ryan Callinan.

Jackson Baker came second in his heat in the round of 144 at the Maitland & Port Stephens Toyota Pro Jako Baker will come up against good friend Ryan Callinan in Round Two. WSL / Grant Sproule

"Today was the first heat I've ever made at this event," Baker said. "I'm super stoked to get the monkey off my back and I'm feeling confident going into the next round. I'll be surfing against my good friend and training partner Ryan Callinan."

Although this is the first QS6,000 event of the year, there have been a number of lower-rated, 1,000-level and junior events running around Australia. Reef Heazlewood has been competing in a number of these events, and earning some strong results. He continued his roll today, winning his Round One heat with a solid display of forehand and backhand surfing.

Reef Heazelwood  won his Round 1 Heat at the Maitland and Port Stephens Toyota Pro at Merewether Beach Reef Heazlewood has been on a tear in 2017 and continued it in Round One at Merewether. WSL / Tom Bennett

"It's been a busy start to the year but I feel like I'm just armed up," Heazlewood said. "I have some good strategies done now so I'm feeling confident in my competition game plan now. There are a lot of guys in this contest that I look up to so I want to go as far as possible and hopefully take down some big names."

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