Asking the men if Fiji is their favorite event on Tour is kind of like asking if water is wet. The answer is boringly yes. It's a glorified vacation that also acts as the 5th stop on the Championship Tour.
After a wild mix of results in Brazil, Fiji's typical finishes are much more consistent and picking your fantasy team usually ends up looking like a dream cast in a surf video.
Tier A has only one previous Fiji champion with the return of Owen Wright. That also happens to be Owen's only trip into the final series in this event, but he's missed two of the five years they've run over his career due to injury. Still, after only surfing the Outerknown Fiji Pro three times, Owen owns nine Excellent Heats with two of those being perfect heats. That's a higher average than any other surfer on Tour and his Average Heat Score is second to only Kelly Slater's at 15.61.
That's a full point better than the next best average in this tier, which goes unsurprisingly to John John Florence, with a 14.57 AHS. John claims the highest Heat Win Percentage in this bracket at 65 percent and has yet to lose before the Quarterfinals. Considering this is not a spot he frequents outside of the jersey, every event John surfs in Fiji bodes worse for the rest of the field as he continues to gain experience in the Cloudbreak lineup.
All the remaining surfers in Tier A (minus Caio Ibelli, who's pulled out due to injury), have reached the quarterfinals or better in Fiji at least once, but each has also struggled at times except for Joel Parkinson. Parko is top 5 in AHS, HWP, and Excellent Heats. After missing his favorite event last year with an ankle injury, you can bet on him being extra motivated to bring a third straight trophy home to Namotu and celebrate with a Skull Drag at Waqa's Bar.
Jordy Smith is a risky pick in sizable conditions but if the swell slows or he draws a high tide heat suited for turns, look out. With J-Bay on the horizon, just staying within striking distance of the Jeep Leader's jersey would be a major positive for his World Title campaign.
Keep an eye out for Adriano de Souza, who's tied for the third-most trips to the quarterfinals here. Although he hasn't broken through to the semis yet, ADS extended his stay in 2016 for a massive swell, and comes into Fiji with a boatload of momentum from his Oi Rio Pro win.
Tier B could easily start with the two-time winner and current defending champion. When you think of Gabriel Medina and Cloudbreak, complete domination is probably the first thing that comes to mind. What's weird is the events in between his top performances have been duds. Gabby followed up his 2012 Final vs. Kelly with a 25th-place finish in 2013. He chased his freak-show win in 2014 with a 13th in 2015. What will follow his 1st in 2016 is up to you to guess. Medina's Average Heat Score in Fiji is 6th among active CT surfers and he only owns four Excellent Heats, which matches Jordy Smith's total in that same time span. What you may have thought to be a lock for your picks may not be so certain.
Of course, it's been said the only certain things in life are death, taxes and Kelly Slater at Cloudbreak. Slater owns every statistical category at his favorite wave in the world. In most cases, it's not even close to the next- best surfer. He's made the Final four times and never lost it. He's surfed 28 Excellent Heats and with a HWP of 77 percent. It's "eights or lates" for any opponent and the better the forecast, the better Kelly becomes. The only question now is how much pain is his back causing? Considering Kelly's been seen surfing and golfing multiple times since pulling out of the Oi Rio Pro, chances are that the GOAT is ready for an event that he literally owns.
There are several other solid routes to choose in Tier B: -Mick Fanning is averaging 4.8th place over the past five years here, only missing the Quarterfinals one time. -Jeremy Flores has a top 10 HWP (53 percent) and AHS (13.69). -Julian Wilson cracked the Final in 2015 and put in some extra work in the offseason filming for Wayward. -If not for a priority interference, Conner Coffin might've been unstoppable in last year's epic conditions. Being a former boatman on Tavarua, he knows this reef like the back of his hand. -Michel Bourez made the semifinals in 2014 and placed 9th in 2016. -Ace Buchan is coming off a runner-up performance in Brazil and sits in the top 5 for AHS this year at 14.41. -Italo Ferreira returns from injury to an event at which he once took down Slater.
For Tier C, what we lose with Filipe Toledo's suspension, we gain in an additional wildcard. Yago Dora get his second straight call-up. It's certainly well-deserved after ripping through a World Champion-filled field at the Oi Rio Pro. If you think he's only a one-hit wonder, be careful, because his video parts in rifling left reef passes tell a different story.
Nat Young is a former finalist who breaks into this event's top 10 with a 13.27 AHS. The past two years have equaled early exits for Nat, but after failing to re-qualify last year, he has to be ecstatic over just getting another shot in paradise.
Leo Fioravanti has never surfed an event at Cloudbreak and is averaging under 11 points per heat in his rookie season, but he's chased multiple swells to this spot and likely stands a better chance than Ethan Ewing to break their rookie season losing streak.
One more name to watch in Tier C is local wildcard Tevita Gukilau. The better the conditions, the better the chance he has to cause damage to the Jeep Leaderboard. That said, Fijians have historically had a tough time making heats compared to other locations on the CT.
Tune in Sunday at 7:30 a.m. local time -- Saturday at 12:30 p.m. PDT -- for the next call, and potential run of the women's Final and men's Round One.