- WSL / Ed Sloane
- WSL / Ed Sloane

It just might be the closest, and the most clustered, World Title race in years. Now that the dust has settled on the Australian leg of the Tour, the Oi Rio Women's Pro will provide yet another fascinating installment in a race that has all the ingredients for drama.

Stephanie Gilmore of Australia came runner up at the Rip Curl Pro, Bells Beach. Courtney Conlogue beat Stephanie Gilmore at Bells, but expect these two to be in the mix to the very end. - WSL / Ed Sloane

We have veterans striving for records and personal redemption, a current World Champion offering a desperate defense and young progressive talents wanting to smash the established order. There's big personalities, immense respect and intense rivalries and up to six surfers all believing they have what it takes to win.

Sally Fitzgibbons of Australia advanced to the quarterfinals after winning Heat 3 of Round Four at the Roxy Pro Gold Coast, Australia. Sally Fitzgibbons is back in peak form. - WSL / Ed Sloane

While the victories were shared between three different winners at Snapper, Margaret River and Bells, it was 6x World Champion Stephanie Gilmore who emerged with the frontunner's Yellow Jersey. With a 1-3-2 record, this is Gilmore's biggest points haul in Australia since her 2012 World Title winning campaign.

"It's the best start for a long time and that makes me very excited about what lies ahead," she said after her defeat by Courtney Conlogue in the Final at Bells. "I'm enjoying the Yellow Jersey and I want to keep it."

Stephanie Gilmore of Australia won her Quarter Final heat at the Rip Curl Pro, Bells Beach. Gilmore has been back to her sublime competitive best in 2017. - WSL / Ed Sloane

While Gilmore is chasing Layne Beachley's record of seven World Titles, just behind her is another veteran, Sally Fitzgibbons, who is still chasing her first. Foot and back injuries hampered her performance at Bells, but the victory at Margaret River showed that Fitzgibbons is back to her best after two relatively, by her standards, poor years.

Sally takes Margarets.
Sally Fitzgibbons got the edge over Stephanie Gilmore in their Semifinal heat, heading to the Finals with Tyler Wright.

"When I heard my name being called out as the champion at Margarets," she said, "I really felt a sense of belonging and calm." Knowing that she has made four out of the last five finals in Rio, and won two, should add to that sense of composure. Rio will be pivotal if Sally is to finally win a first-ever Title in her ninth year of trying.

Sally beat the current World Champ Tyler Wright in the Final of the Drug Aware Margaret River Pro, which represented another missed opportunity on the Australian leg for the World Champ. Her 5-2-3 record is a solid start to a World Title defense, but that she failed to win will grate. Now back in full comp mode, though, and still within striking distance of Steph and Sally, perhaps no other surfer is due a result in Brazil more than Wright.

Tyler Wright won her Quarter Final heat at the Rip Curl Pro, Bells Beach. Tyler Wright was back to her powerful best at Bells. - WSL / Ed Sloane

Behind the trio of Australians, Californians Courtney Conlogue and Lakey Peterson add a progressive mix and the best chance of establishing a new world order to women's surfing. Conlogue's win at Bells included last-minute victories over three World Champions and should provide the catalyst for yet another World Title challenge.

"I had a rough start to the year, but to beat Carissa, Tyler and Steph at Bells is huge," she said after her win at the Rip Curl Pro. "It makes a big difference going into Rio, I'm right back in it." She also won there in 2015 and has a claim to be the form surfer right now.

Courtney Conlogue of the USA successfully defended her Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach title by defeating 6X World Champion Stephanie Gilmore of Australia in the final in 4 - 6 conditions at Bells Beach. Conlogue jumped back in the World Title mix at Bells. - WSL / Kelly Cestari

Peterson is the youngest of the surfers in the top five and after a 2016 blighted by injury, she has performed some of the most dynamic surfing over the last three events. She's only 22, this is remarkably her sixth year on Tour. Peterson's precocious potential is maturing, but she now needs to convert her many Quarterfinals, Semifinals and Finals into wins. Her one and only CT victory came when she was 17, at the US Open, and she knows she needs victories to be in the Title conversation. However Rio and its punchy beach breaks suit her air game and could provide the ideal platform for her move into the World Title chat.

Lakey dismantles Snapper.
Lakey Peterson earns a 9.13 against Silvana Lima in Round Two Heat 6.

The Oi Rio Women's Pro will be in no way definitive, being the fourth of 10 stops on Tour, but it should help form a slightly clearer picture on what is shaping up as one of the most intriguing World Title races in years.

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