With the Billabong Pro Tahiti coming up next for the Men's Championship Tour it's time to start the prognosticating. Predicting the future, as always, demands an understanding of the past, so let's look at where we were this time last year, what transpired, and how it impacted the World Title race.
For the second year in a row Matt Wilkinson will arrive in the South Pacific as the Jeep Leader. While his lead is much smaller this year, it's built on a stronger foundation. He's climbed into the top spot by steadily rounding out his game. Last year, after jumping out to a huge lead with back-to-back wins to open the season, his drift back to earth accelerated in Tahiti. He lost in Round Three to wildcard Bruno Santos, a former event winner. Tahiti's local trials winners are always going to be dangerous. Indeed, Bruno won the Billabong Pro as a wildcard in 2008. Top seeds have reason to be worried.
Meanwhile, John John Florence will be heading to Tahiti hot on Wilko's tail again. In 2016, after a slow start, John's title run kicked into gear with a win in Rio and a runner-up at J-Bay. At the same time Gabriel Medina, who also stumbled out of the gate, had quietly gained on the leaders after going beast mode in Fiji. When asked, Medina summed up his Tahiti objective in two words. "Beat John."
The World Title race was kicking into high gear. Medina knew it. John knew it. Everyone knew it. And as they both skated through the early rounds with their opposing styles, a death match between the two seemed inevitable. Much to everyone's delight, it came in the Semifinal...and it was epic.
In firing, perfect 6-to-8 foot Teahupo'o, the two Championship Tour titans traded staggering blows, in what became one of the most exciting heats of the season. Both surfers could sense what was at stake. Medina bagged a 9.23, 9.10 and a perfect 10….and still didn't win. Florence got a 9.27, 9.17, 9.93 and a 9.73, edging him by a mere .43 points to advance into the Final with Kelly Slater.
The heat could have easily gone either way, and it's one that fans still debate. "It was a fun heat," Medina said through clenched teeth. "John John is always very hard to beat anywhere. We both surfed incredible waves, but today was his day."
Their super-heat wasn't the end of the Billabong Pro drama. There was still the highly anticipated Final between Florence, who was chasing destiny, and Slater, the world's most dominant surfer trying to keep his dynasty intact. Both were on fire. And paddling into the perfect-perfect lineup, the look on John John's face said it all: he wanted revenge. That's because Slater's last win more than two years earlier came at John's expense, in the Final of the 2013 Pipe Masters. Kelly's been pretty stingy when it comes to passing the torch...and it was starting to piss Florence off.
After going winless in 2014 and 2015, Slater was dead set on proving he's not in decline. Granted, his results in the small stuff had been in steady decline, but in big hollow tubes he's always up for the challenge, even up against somebody half his age.
Slater opened with a 9.77, and Florence never really recovered. Kelly would tack on two more 9-point rides for a dominant win. The fact that it was his 55th Championship Tour win was astounding. "This is for sure one of the best wins I've ever had," a teary-eyed Kelly Slater said afterward. "To have John John in the Final is a dream for me. You know, where I am on the back end of my career and him and Gabe on their way up…those guys are monsters."
With Slater sadly out of the mix this year due to his broken foot, the monsters look scarier than ever, but so do the threats surrounding them.
The Billabong Pro Tahiti begins on August 11th, which can't come soon enough.