The cancellation of the men's and women's Margaret River Pro brought the Australian leg of the WSL Championship Tour (CT) to a sudden and rather unfinished close. Yet, while it's difficult to draw conclusions from the abbreviated competition in the west, as a whole, all three of the events that just unfolded Down Under -- starting in March with the Quik and Roxy Pro at Snapper, then the Rip Curl Pro at Bells and finally, the Margaret River Pro -- provided invaluable insights into what is shaping up to be a fascinating year. From John John Florence's poor start to Mick Fanning's incredible end, here are six lessons from the trifecta of Australian events.
Zeke Lau Finds a Way to Rattle John John Florence
Florence started the year as a favorite for a third consecutive World Title. His defense last year was a relatively serene one, even with Gabriel Medina's late charge. At the young age of 25, Florence looked to have built the foundations for surfing domination. His early loss at the Quik Pro Gold Coast was therefore a surprise, but came with the mitigating factor that his opponent was Mikey Wright, one of the most dangerous wildcards the sport has seen.
However, at Bells, a new threat to his competitive armor emerged. In his heat with Zeke Lau, it was his fellow Hawaiian's aggressive, and ultimately successful, tactics that may have revealed a weakness that other opponents may try to exploit in the future. "He is the Champ and you can't let him relax," Lau said afterwards. "I wanted to give him no room to breathe and put as much pressure on him as possible." There is no doubt other surfers will try the same approach. How John John deals with it could define his year.
We Knew Caroline Marks Was Good...
But not this good. The warning signs were there. Marks was the youngest-ever surfer to compete in a CT event, when she surfed at Lower Trestles as a 13-year-old. When she qualified for the CT last year, at 15, she was again the youngest ever to do so. However, having just turned 16 before the Roxy Pro Gold Coast -- the first event of the CT season, and her first event as a member of it -- expectations still had to be tempered. The talent and potential were undeniable, but would the experience gulf be too much, too soon? Defeats of Sage Erickson, Steph Gilmore, Johanne Defay and Lakey Peterson at Snapper and Bells and a current rank of World No. 5 have shown that we should forget about Marks's age and simply focus on her surfing. In Australia she has gone from an ingénue to a superstar on the rise.
Griffin Colapinto Leads The Rookie Charge
The Australian leg provided the first opportunity to check out just how the rookies might fare over the course of the year. The step up from the WSL Qualifying Series to the CT is massive, and the surfers need to learn on the job under huge pressure. To have two rookies, Griffin Colapinto and Tomas Hermes, both make the Semifinals at the Gold Coast Pro, therefore, was truly remarkable. Colapinto was particularly impressive, scoring a perfect 10 in his first CT event and mixing tube prowess at challenging Kirra with progressive airs at Snapper. Those two weren't alone, however. Michael Rodrigues, too, made the Quarterfinals at Kirra and, by the end of the Australian leg, each of the six rookies on the men's Tour had won a heat. It is early days, and further challenges await, but it seems the Class of 2018 has come CT-prepped and ready to do some damage.
Mick Fanning Will Be Missed
Surfing hadn't seen a retirement like it since, well, since never. When Mick Fanning announced that the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach would be his last CT event the entire surf world went into a collective celebration of his incredible career. The Cheers Mick hashtag became a global call of recognition and appreciation for all he has done for the sport. In the end he fell agonizingly short of a fairytale win at Bells, but in some ways that loss only served to shine a brighter light on his surfing talent and his personality. His final embrace in the water with winner Italo Ferreira became one of surfing's iconic moments. He ended his career at the top of game and with universal respect as not only one of the greatest ever surfers, but one of the sport's greatest blokes. He will be missed.
Lower Heat Totals But More Progression
Before the Australian leg, plenty of the early interest in the CT centered on the changes to the calendar, and especially the addition of the Surf Ranch to the CT. Other changes, such as the promotion of new head judge Pritamo Ahrendt, gained less coverage. At the time the WSL said, "Ahrendt's vast knowledge and foresight will be invaluable in evolving the judging criteria in step with the progression of the world's best surfers."
That was a coded message to the surfers that progression and variety were about to be rewarded more than last year. This year we have seen safe surfing being punished and surfers have realized that last year's sixes will become fours if they don't push themselves. Early on lower heat totals were an obvious result, but as the surfers adapted, the progression levels were noticeable. The scale has changed and the surfing is better as a result.
Both World Title Races Are Going To Be Wide Open
If the Australian leg is anything to go by, both the men's and women's races are destined to go the wire. In the men's, no individual surfer was able to post big results at Bells and Snapper and the cancellation of the Margaret River Pro only further compressed the field. As we head to Brazil, the Jeep Leaders' yellow jersey is being shared, and there are just over 5,000 rankings points separating out each of the top 10 surfers. That 10 also doesn't include the World Champion John John Florence and perennial contenders Jordy Smith and Matt Wilkinson. Among the women's CT surfers, Steph Gilmore and Lakey Peterson have opened up more of a ratings gap at the top, but Tyler Wright and Carissa Moore are lurking with intent and in striking distance. With just under a third of the year's events completed, and with no individuals yet to take the rankings by the scruff of the neck, it seems we could be in for yet another year where the World Title races will go down to the wire.