Tour sophomore Ezekiel Lau came out aggressively during the first heat of the day Tuesday at the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach, defeating 2x World Champ John John Florence in what would become the first of several upsets. After getting an early 6:45am start, the sky was still dark as the first two surfers paddled out for Round 3, Heat 7. As light began to creep in, clean, 4-6-foot sets appeared on the horizon, sparking some energy among the early rising spectators.
Lau put the pressure on from the start, earning a 7.00 on his first wave and a 6.07 on his second -- putting up two scores before Florence caught his first wave, and effectively cornering him.
"I let him feel the pressure a little bit," Lau said of his approach. "[John's] a Champ so you can't give him any room. I know what he is capable of when he's comfortable and feeling good, which is why my strategy was what it was."
Long lulls between sets made it hard for Florence to recover, he didn't get his first score (a 3.83) until midway through the heat. When the 2x World Champ gets comfortable it's a dangerous thing, and Lau is well aware of that. He got the inside, picked up the first good wave and then sat on Florence -- literally doing a few laps around him. Lau's aggressive tactics worked and Florence couldn't catch up, scoring a 5.93 on his last wave for 13.07 heat total.
Florence remained visibly calm throughout the whole affair, but his body language was anything but upbeat.
"The waves are pumping, unfortunately it slowed down a little bit during our heat," Florence said afterward. "It's all a competition and I just kind of laugh about it because he's paddling over my board and stuff. In a way it's kind of lame because it's fun to surf a heat based on pure surfing and not sitting on someone's board. But at the same time it's a competition. He surfed really well and I'll learn from it."
For Martin Potter, the 1989 World Champ and WSL commentator, aggressive tactics were all part of the game during his competitive days."I think John's reaction is natural," said Potter. "He was expecting to have a nice little surf-off, but Zeke had other plans. It's a wake-up call for John. He's going to be dangerous from now on. Guys used to run me over during heats all the time but you learn how to deal with that. You do it to them before they do it to you."
During his Round 3 battle against Florence, it wasn't just Lau's tactical game that was strong, it was that type of powerful surfing, as well, which earned him a 13.07 heat total (out of 20). "I pulled up and the conditions were firing," said Lau. "Right off the get-go I got really excited. I didn't even get a warm-up in. I've been thinking about this everyday so I was ready to go. I've already been there in my head so it's easy now."
If Florence wasn't fired up before, he definitely will be after his loss here at Bells. His early exit comes on the heels of a Round 2 loss at the Quik Pro Gold Coast last month -- an inauspicious season start for someone who just won two, back-to-back World Titles. Florence will now be heading to West Oz to get an early jump on the Margaret River Pro, which kicks off April 11.
In the meantime, Lau has made it to the Quarterfinals. The Bells Bowl suits his style well, enabling him to perform long, drawn-out bottom turns that have carried him through the Rip Curl Pro so far.