Jordy Smith was dealing with a bad case of déjà vu during his nail-biter death match Sunday against wildcard Dale Staples. The pair was sent out in less than ideal conditions, as the new pulse of swell that was predicted was blowing right past J-Bay. Sets were few and far between. The scenario was eerily similar to Smith's controversial heat with John John Florence last year.
Like Sunday, last year's Quarterfinal match against Florence was the first heat of the day. Conditions looked contestable as competitors hit the water but quickly began to deteriorate. After an agonizingly long wait, with both surfers stuck too far up the point, the heat turned into a frantic last minute frenzy of waves, with John John edging ahead of Jordy in a hurried last exchange.
Immediately after the heat finished, surfing was called off for the day, much to Jordy's chagrin.
Flash forward to this morning, where Smith and Staples found themselves sitting in a very quiet lineup. Jordy waited nearly 10 minutes to open things up, and realizing it would be a wave-starved heat, he nabbed a second wave on the way back out to grab the lead. Staples, a longtime J-Bay local, didn't flinch. He waited until there were 12 minutes left in the heat before responding, and it paid off with a 6.5, which put him right back in the match.
The waning moments were tense, especially for Smith, who's smack dab in the middle of a World Title race at this point, and basically needs a big result here at his home break to keep that dream alive.
Holding a very thin lead, Smith kept a tight grip on priority in the heat's dying moments. Then, with under two minutes to go a small set approached and he had a crucial decision to make: utilize his priority and leave Staples alone out the back in the final minute, or let Staples have a go at the small wall rolling through, essentially challenging him to get the 4.17 he needed.
Showing nerves of steel, Smith let Staples have a go at it. And to Staples' credit, he took the small wall apart. Meanwhile, Jordy quickly discovered there was nothing much behind it.
There was a bit of unease in the air. A sinking feeling mixed with a bit of stoke. The crowd was conflicted, of course. It would be good for the local wildcard to get through, but at the cost of a Jordy title run? That was tough. The judges began their deliberating.
We waited. Jordy waited. Dale waited. Michael February, sitting further up the point ahead of his heat, waited with Matt Wilkinson. A barista serving a cappuccino at the contest site waited, refusing to froth his milk...
Jordy no doubt had a million things going through his mind. Did he make the right call by giving that wave to Staples? Was it going to be a repeat of the John John scenario the year before, where John got the nod? The waiting game was torture.
Finally, just as Jordy took off on a hapless little wall to try to better his situation, the score came down. It wasn't enough. A 3.77. There was a crease of smiles from the Smith camp. Jordy, meanwhile, hearing the score in the middle of his ride, breathed a huge sigh of relief.
The win was by a margin of 0.40, but as Shaun Tomson said on the beach afterwards, "A World Title is not won by meters, it's won by millimeters."
"It was definitely stressful out there," said Smith. "And to be honest, Dale is probably the deadliest guy in the whole draw. Even though we're great friends everyone wants to win. It sucks to come up against him in a heat, but I'm sure he'll get more opportunities."