Welcome back to Post-Script, a quick overview of each event on the WSL championship tour. Today, a review of the 2019 Billabong Pipe Masters.
The final event of 2019, the Billabong Pipe Masters crescendo’d in the final heat, in very good surf, with world ranked #2 surfing for his 3rd world title and attempting to defend his Pipe Masters crown against the slight underdog and world ranked #1. The world title would be decided between the top two surfers in the final at Pipeline with the most exciting season finish since Andy sent Kelly to cry in the shower.
When we left Portugal it was a 5 way race for the title, with Italo Ferreria being the only athlete who controlled his own destiny. Even second ranked, two-time world champ Gabriel Medina couldn’t win the world title unless Italo finished 1 position lower. But Italo had surfed the Pipe Masters 4 times before, and he’d finished 13th three times. Contrast that to Gabriel’s three final’s berths and being the defending champ, and that positioned Gabriel as the favored surfer going into the 2019 Pipe Masters.
In an effort to close that chasm, Italo showed up in Hawaii a month in advance and was consistently the first person in the water at Pipeline daily, in all variety of conditions, logging more hours than anyone else, CT surfer or local.
Gabriel took the time between events to go home to Brazil to regroup and decompress from the intensity of the world title race.
Italo’s November Pipe sessions were quietly being surveyed from the back porch of the man who led the rankings through the first half of the season by a larger margin than we’ve seen since Kelly Slater’s sequence of titles in 2010 and 11. When Italo showed up in Hawaii, John John couldn’t even stand on a surfboard, still recovering from a surgery that hoped to fix a knee injury he sustained during a heat in Brazil, which was actually a re-injury from last year in a freesurf after the event in Bali. Both of those injuries were incurred while John John was attempting airs; the first while landing, the second while launching. John John had won 2 of the first 4 events this season, withdrew mid-Brazil in 1st place and despite not having competed in the subsequent 5 events, was set to re-enter the season in a knee brace at Pipeline ranked 8th in the world.
Another perennial Pipe favorite, despite being outside the world title conversation, was the most winning Pipe surfer and 11 time world champ Kelly Slater. With a promising forecast and impressive performances at Haleiwa and Sunset, events Kelly rarely surfers, Kelly seemed more engaged and interested than he has in other years when he’s been outside of title contention.
The event opened with stellar conditions and pulsing surf, albeit mostly Backdoor. We used two days of resource, swell, and competition to dispatch a mere 4 among 36 surfers; Leonardo Fioravanti, Michael Rodrigues, Frederico Moraiis, and former Pipe Master Jeremy Flores.
The only title contender who didn’t win his first round heat was Jordy Smith, who injured his knee while surfing in Hawaii 2 weeks prior, flew to California to assess the damage, and then decided that his potential first world title was worth risking excessive damage so he flew back to compete at Pipe. His 2nd place finish in round 1 positioned him against Jesse Mendes in round 3, a foe whom had narrowly defeated Jordy in the same round at Keramas in May in a controversial judges decision. Jordy injury didn’t seem to be showing, but neither was any passion nor intensity that we saw from the other 4 title contenders. At the every beginning of the season and throughout, I posited that Jordy was setting a marathoners pace and planning to peak at the season’s end, perhaps in Europe but certainly at Pipeline. Jordy did make the final in Portugal but he looked lost in France and he exhibited no visible tactics nor strategy against Jesse Mendes at Pipe. Jordy seemed happy to simply exchange waves and priority and mustered a 7.5 heat total to Jesse’s 9.10. Jesse would be dispatched from the event and the Tour unceremoniously in the very following round. And Jordy’s title hopes for 2019 ended with hardly a whimper, but a still impressive 3 place overall finish.
Filipe Toledo was other title hopeful who lost in round 3. Known for his small wave wizardry, Filipe can’t escape the critiques about him being fearful in shallow barreling waves. His Pipe performance here won’t do much to dissuade those criticisms. That said, he did improve on past performances, just as he did in Tahiti. He even naviaged a few barrels. But he’s calculated in his approach and he’s not nearly as sure-footed as he is on smaller boards. If you contrast his approach with Jadson Andre’s, who will spin and go on any wave that lurches regardless of size or how deep he is; you’d think that Filipe and Jadson’s rankings were flip-flopped. In round 1 Filipe was lucky to draw Deivid Silva and Ricardo Christie, whom had finished 17th in every event of the season up until Europe where he finished 33rd twice. Filipe must have been elated when he drew Ricardo again in round 3, but then equally as gobsmacked to witness Ricardo put together his best result of the season by virtue of an 11.04 heat total. Enroute to his loss, Filipe claimed a 6.17. Shane Dorian was in the booth and complimented Filipe’s improvement but also stated that if you’re in a world title race, you cannot avoid Pipe leading up to the event. Hopefully Filipe heeds that advice and will likely take cues from Adriano and now Italo and perhaps even stick around through January to log more practice out there.
However, I’m going to offer a prediction that 2019 marks peak Filipe. He’ll continue to be the fastest surfer on Tour and be a threat at safer right handers, but even if he gets comfy at barreling reef breaks, he’s a long way from the natural finesse that Gabriel, Italo, John John, Kelly, Julian, Jack Robinson, and others possess. In 2020, Keramas is replaced by Gland, where by the way Luke Egan is the defending champ, and couple that with the fact that some of the new qualifiers showcase similar strengths as Filipe; all this creates even more complexity for his pet events. So this 3rd place ranking, may be the best we ever see from Filipe.
Kolohe Andino is the only of our title contenders to have never won an event. While his comfort and prowess at Pipeline has increased over the years, the odds of him consummating that deed with these other athletes was only ever a pipe dream. As you’d expect from our perennial bridesmaid, Kolohe utilized heat strategy to mitigate environmental variables. He caught waves first, built on his scoreline, and never botched priority. He beat Griffin and Jadson in round 1 and Seabass in round 3, before eventually succumbing to Michel Bourez in round 4. True to form, Kolohe caught 10 waves to Michel’s 5, but the best only being a 5.17. Michel is a PipeMaster and he favored patience over opportunity, which found him on the best two waves of the heat, which he surfed adequate to a 6.5 at Pipe and a 6.93 on a deep Backdoor Runner with 3 minutes and 9 seconds on the clock. Kolohe held the yellow jersey briefly midseason, entered Europe in 2nd but gave up that positioning with 2 quarterfinal finishes. He entered Hawaii in 5th and leaves in the same position; a vast improvement over last year’s 11th place finish, but still slightly under his best finish of 4th in 2016. I’m at a loss for insights or advice on how he could create a point of difference and a point of superiority over Italo, Gabe, John John, or even Julian, Jordy and Filipe. But I’m sure that Kolohe will never be happy with anything less than a world title, so I’m sure there is more to come.
Before we conclude the event, semifinalist Griffin Colapinto and Kelly Slater both deserve acknowledgment. Griffin made mistakes through the event, but he also went on a few crazy waves from harrowing positions and his superlative talent and agility that we’ve seen all year translated into the bigger surf. It’s his 2nd Pipe Masters but this 3rd place finish is a vast improvement over last years 13th. He finishes the year in 16th.
Kelly Slater stated that he might retire if he were to win Pipe. After his 3rd place finish he told Rosie Hodge that he’ll probably be back next year and that he’s actually feeling more motivated than he has in quite a while. We’ve seen Kelly get bored in the past and I presume that the excitement of how intense the competition will be in 2020 is the reason for Kelly’s motivation. Seeing what Italo has done and knowing that Gabe is enraged and completely capable of a 3rd. Kelly’s also eyeing John John who will presumably be back to full health and looking to reassert the dominance he enforced through the first 4 events. How could Kelly possibly sit out? He’s also the only surfer to score a 10 this year at Pipe. He also won this year’s Triple Crown. Buuuuut, I’ve heard Kelly say in the past that there’s no point in competing if you’re not trying to win the world title. And perhaps Kelly’s policy has changed since that day and maybe he’s happy to aim for individual event wins and finish his career with a decade of top 10 finishes, punctuated by 2 lesser finishes due to injury seasons. And if that’s the case, then great. I’m not demeaning it and his surfing is still brilliant. This year’s 8th place finish is very impressive by almost any other surfer’s standard. But if the waves are anything less than stellar at Snapper, JBay, Teahupo’o, Gland and Pipe, I’d suggest he’s a quarterfinalist at best. And the other events on Tour he’s even less favored, so the hopes of breaking into the top 5 again are slim, and the idea of a 12th title seems far fetched. Although, I also would have made that exact same argument in 2007, right before he came back and won 3 more over a very formidable champ Mick Fanning, among other contenders. And truthfully, I hope that he proves me very wrong.
And to bring us back to Pipe, Italo beat him in the semis. Gabe beat Griff. And Italo and Gabe would surf their 4th heat of the day, in very consistent surf for the final heat of 2019. Italo would surf 7 waves, Gabriel 9. Despite Gabe being favored on paper, and the fact that Gabe surfed nearly flawlessly through the early rounds, the overall energy seemed to be with Italo.
Perhaps it was his underdog status, or maybe due to the fact that it’s his sponsors event and we were seeing ads featuring him at every commercial break. Or maybe it was because before Gabriel paddle blocked Griffin in the semi’s and John John in the quarters, he blatantly burned Caio Ibelli who held priority with 45 seconds left in the heat, Gabe knowing that he’d lose his 2nd scoring ride, but also knowing that his 4.23 was still enough to advance through the heat. It would stand to reason that between Portugal and Hawaii, while Gabriel may have gained more Instagram followers, he’d probably lost a few surf fans, fans who found it all too easy to convert their support from one tattoo’d goofy footed Brazilian to another. Discernible by their hair color, height, and facial hair, Italo actually could have been confused as Gabriel as he out battled him for rank on the first viable wave in the first 10 seconds of the heat; a wave that would in fact net the highest score of the heat. Gabe wanted the left, but Italo bullied into the right and earned a 7.83 for it. Gabe answered back with a 7.77 at Pipe. Italo backed up his first score with a 6.17 and left Gabe chasing a 6.24 for the next 15 minutes. Gabe never got it, but with 10 minutes left Italo navigated a very long left, got spit out and then stomped a full rotation air on the end section for a 7.73, thus making Gabe’s task even harder, and never to be surmounted. When Italo landed that air, he saluted the beach, claiming the wave hard and with it, his maiden world title and his first Pipe Masters trophy.
After being chaired up the beach, he wept uncontrollably. He was unable to compose himself to chat with Rosie Hodge, but huffing between tears he explained that he had lost a close family member recently, as had his girlfriend, and those people had encouraged him to take this title.
The next days surfers from Filipe, to Mick Fanning, to Jack Freestone posted photos of Italo with words of congratulations. Italo personally responded to each, stating gratitude and often citing that they had each inspired his success.
Congrats to Italo Ferriera on winning an undeniably tough event and beating a very tough competitor. And congrats to Gabriel Medina on bringing out the best of all your competitors.
Surfers that failed to requalify for the 2020 Championship Tour are Ricardo Christie, Soli Bailey, Joan Duru, Ezekiel Lau, Sebastien Zietz, Michael Rodrigues, Jesse Mendes, and Willian Cardoso.
Adriano de Souza, Mikey Wright, and Leonardo Fioravanti will be vying for just two injury wildcards. It’s likely that former world champ Adriano would get 1, so it’ll be between Leo and Mikey. The other will likely be put as a first injury replacement for 2020, which Caio Ibelli was this year and he was able to surf the entire season because of it. He finished 17th which secures his spot for 2020.
New additions in 2020 include Matthew McGillivray, Jack Robinson, and Morgan Cibilic, who are joined by fellow qualifiers and former CT’rs Frederico Morais, Jadson Andre, Alex Ribeiro, Miguel Pupo, Ethan Ewing, and Conner O’Leary.
It goes without saying, but this year’s Pipe Masters was a spectacular way to finish a very exciting season. Congrats and thanks to the WSL are in order. And thank you for listening throughout. Happy Holiday’s to all. I’ll be back New Year’s week with our final installment with Dick Metz and then Post-Script will resume in 4 months, at the beginning of April at the end of the Corona Open Gold Coast. We’ll see you there.