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Medina, soaring on his way to claiming his third World Title. Photo: WSL

THE MORNING OF THE FINALS

Big seeds claim the world titles, but almost get upstaged by the sharks.

With the ‘Morning of the finals’ at last arriving, there were two major questions hanging in the air? Who would be the world champions and would the WSL’s controversial finals day format play well to fans? Of course, both questions were intrinsically linked.  

Speaking from the commentary box, Kelly Slater, the surfer who has won more world titles than anyone under the old system, probably summed up the sentiment for many of those watching. “The right guy won, … we haven’t always been the best of friends but I like Gabriel … we’re cool and I didn’t want to see him lose.”

The women’s title also went to the top seed, Carissa Moore, so there wasn’t anywhere near as much motivation to question the new system. No surfer was left to call it a rip-off or miscarriage of justice and look like a sour grapes loser.

So what did that leave us with? An entertaining morning of surfing and shark cameos that achieved the same result that might have otherwise been reached by the old method. Having survived its first pub test, it seems likely the WSL will stick with their new finals format. Fans will continue to debate its validity, but this is the future. A willingness to switch up the venue of the finals and the time zone might be welcomed by many, but you can’t deny that Trestles provided a worthy stage for the bold new format.   

I woke just before three am like a blink-eyed marsupial, loaded up the WSL on chrome-cast and hoped for an Australian miracle – The first vision I was met with was Sally Fitzgibbon wailing through a turn on a sparkling, five-foot, Trestles right. “This is like a train with no brakes,” screeched Chris Cote. The accent had a little too much So-Cal twang for 3 am but Cote had certainly captured the vibe with his railroad metaphor. The finals show was rolling at break-neck speed.

Before the kettle had boiled Johanne Defay had been dispatched and Conner Coffin was throttling towards an 8.5 opener against Filipe Toledo, cleaving huge carves on a smooth Trestles face. It was at once a thing of beauty and despair. The cherubic Californian underdog was ripping but his presence on the screen made it clear that Morgan Cibilic was already kicking the Trestles Cobblestones. It was also apparent that the finals day was alternating between men’s and women’s match-ups.  

Oz fans were grateful for Mick Fanning in the commentary booth, a welcome reminder that Australia produced world champion male surfers last decade. Despite his finals day demise Morgan Cibilic had enjoyed a massive maiden season, far exceeding everyone’s expectations and providing Australian fans with a whiff of ‘mongrel’ hope all year. Bravo.

Between expert insights on strategy, Fanning admitted that he’d spent the last week surfing mock heats with Rip Curl stable-mate, Gabriel Medina. It emphasized that world titles are a competition between surf brands, board-makers, individuals and nations. It was good to know Mick was still respected enough to be called upon to serve as a sparring partner for Medina. He also claimed he’d been playing blocker for Steph Gilmore in the crowded warm-up sessions and advising Morgan Cibilic too. Mick had been spreading the love.

18 minutes to go Toledo claimed his first wave. All year his form had been hot and cold and there was an air of suspense about what he might bring on finals day.

Fil didn’t disappoint, hauling his carbon fibre, dark arts, Sharp Eye quad through three blistering rail carves. Equipped with a pair of H-4 quad fins, Toledo managed to generate phenomenal speed out of his turns. On a lesser wave, he posted an 8.4, just 0.1 behind Coffin’s blazer. Toledo’s class was already a factor. He required less to score more.

With only a couple of minutes remaining, Filipe was left chasing a low-range four. After a deftly timed tail-whip opener it was Toledo who landed the first air of finals day, a clean rotation in a frothy section Fanning called a ‘soup-kitchen’. Toledo was serving Minestrone – his surfing had a bit of everything.

That was a mediocre wave commented Mick. “He did one turn at the start and one air at the end.” He wasn’t suggesting the score should be lower, rather he was emphasising the fact that Toledo didn’t need much to make the magic happen. The judges salivated over the first sight of fins beyond the lip and dropped an 8.17 to send Fil into a match-up with the incumbent world champ, Italo Ferreira.

Sally had lost five from five to Tatiana in past heats when she paddled out. Her tactic was clear. Stay busy and chisel away; apply the pressure to Tatiana. It worked for most of the heat. Tatiana even straight out fell on one wave.

The WSL had brought the big guns, dialling Kelly into the commentary box on the ‘Morning of the Finals’. Slater immediately let us know that ‘The three-headed monster’ had replaced ‘The Brazilian Storm’ as the trending term for the top three Brazilians, Toledo, Ferreira and Medina.

Kelly’s insights were typically spot-on. “Sally is the more consistent wave to wave but Tatiana has a higher ceiling. She just needs to nail one,” commented Kelly.

On cue, with nine minutes to go Tati picked off a set and unleashed her scything backhand attack. Tati’s ‘higher ceiling’ became instantly relevant as she locked in an eight and stole the lead. Meanwhile, Sally missed the wave of the morning by a stroke or two and was forced to watch another world title opportunity slip away.

When Italo and Filipe hit the water their head-to-head match-up was all-square at four wins apiece. Italo’s preferred tactic is to go for the jugular and put his opposition in a combo situation early. He claimed the opener and glided to a 5.17 in second gear.

Toledo flat-out bogged rail on his opening bottom turn, shrugged off the error and proceeded to throw down a brace of air reverses. “This is where Toledo makes a wave become a great wave,” commented Kelly. Slater was right. The judges dropped a 7.33 for the double spin, even wheeling out head judge Richie Porta to break down the score in the live coverage.

The next two-wave exchange was a doozy. A ridiculously relaxed-looking Toledo flowed through carves and fin drifts on a slow-chugging Trestles roller to post a 7.07 back-up. Italo frantically slashed and floated on a bigger wave for a 7.27. It was game-on. Italo was in the hunt, chasing a very gettable 7.14. while Toledo was left trying to better a 7.07.

Easily the most well-rounded surfer of the day, Toledo did four different kinds of turns on his next wave, each one perfectly placed. The highlight was a sliding tail drift on the end section that was like a coping grind on a skate bowl. The judges dropped an 8.5 and it was advantage to the dark horse on the black ride, Filipe Toledo. Suddenly Italo needed an 8.56 and Toledo was free to tee-off on whatever he wanted.

With a minute to go Italo was left with one shot at a closeout right but failed to land the backside fin-ditch rotation that has so often been his money-maker turn. Sadly we never really saw Italo in top gear at a wave that seems customized for his attack.  

And so it was Carissa Moore vs Tatiana Weston-Webb and Gabriel Medina vs Filipe Toledo in the finals. Best of three finals are not a new thing. They were a feature of pro surfing in the 80s. However, it was a new headspace for modern competitors. It’s more like a tennis match. Typically one hit-out gets you the silverware but today you needed two kills to claim the highest prize. Who would handle the new psychological landscape best? Watching on, three heats created an illusion of infinite time. Particularly in the opening heat of the women’s, it was like you were waiting for the whole thing to really take off. It kind of did about twelve minutes in with a heavy two-wave exchange. Carissa dropped a five-turn combo for an 8.33. Tatiana’s wave only had three moves but drew more colourful language from the commentary team. It was ‘spicy’ for Sal Masekala while Rosie enjoyed seeing her ‘dirty it up’.  Tati’ dropped a 7.33. Carissa won the exchange mathematically but somehow it was Tati’s wave that evoked the more emotive response. While Moore fell uncharacteristically, Webb maintained the momentum and whipped through a 7.87 to put her in front by less than a point. Cote tried to introduce a new word to the surfing lexicon by describing Tati’s turns as ‘Cobraesque’. One-nil to the venomous Tati and an upset was brewing.  

Gabriel’s Australian coach Andy King had made the point that no one had gone into the nine range all day. The only way to prize a near-perfect score off the scrimpy judges was to go big on the first turn King had apparently told Medina. Meanwhile, Toledo wasn’t too concerned with first turn heroics. He was happy to wait for the end-sections to put together his three turn combos. He did just that to claim a seven on his opener. Toledo calls Trestles home and seemed to have a telling understanding of the wave’s nuances.

On the Trestles rights, the tail-drift snap was Medina’s bread and butter weapon. Like an old friend he could call on when the chips were down. It was the move he went to when he had nothing better than a five after fifteen minutes. The three-turn combo in second gear was enough for a 7.77. With confidence running high Medina went left and capped a solid opening carve with a six-foot-high lofted air that had more hang time than a Jordan dunk. He landed in Toledo’s face with a cross-armed, chest-thrusting claim. Ouch!

It was a flat nine and suddenly Medina had poked his head into the unexplored scoring range his coach had encouraged him to seek. Toledo had performed a four-pronged assault on a left but Medina won the exchange and claimed the lead in trademark, quick-fire style, riding two waves in around five minutes he’d totally flipped the flow of the heat.

Toledo had the wave to lock in the 7.98 he needed, but he overplayed the relaxed body language as he leant into a big carve with a cascading lip. Even with the bogged turn he almost got the score but it was the first of many missed opportunities and he ultimately gifted first blood to Medina.

Round two for the women and Kelly was back, dropping details on how he triangulates his lineup markers at Trestles with freeway signs and contest scaffolding. Meanwhile, Carissa had found the right takeoff zone, swinging into a wide set as Tatiana got caught inside. Carissa nailed an 8.93 while Tatiana took six waves on the head. Carissa backed it up with a 5.83 and sentenced Tati to combo-land.

“That was much more critical surfing in my book,” commented Kelly, after Tatiana drifted the fins through a full-blown backside hack. The judges rewarded her with a 7.93 but on the rights Carissa had a wider range of moves at her disposal. A layback jam underpinned her next wave a 7.67 that squared it up at one heat all.

Meanwhile, Kelly didn’t mind telling head judge Richie Porta that they’d gone too high with Carissa’s first wave. He was relishing the chance to needle the judges from the commentary booth soapbox.

It always felt like it was going to be hard to wrestle back the momentum from Medina at one-nil. However, Toledo was obviously up for the challenge, blitzing his opener and prompting Kelly to gush, “If he lands that final turn, what else could he have possibly done on that wave.” The judges saw a 7.83. With a landing gear on the final move, it may have gone north of nine.

Medina responded with a left that was book-ended by air-reverses (the first with a nose-ride exit) and filled with fierce rail turns in between. 8.5 thank you very much. Filipe was dog-collared by the leg rope after bolting for a fleeting moment. As Mick Fanning and Kelly traded similes for Medina’s giant air attempt – was it as high as a house or a semi-trailer? Toledo flung himself at the lip. However, he lacked Medina’s unfathomable completion rate.

Then the nightmare scenario happened again – a shark rudely interrupted the finals. Tour skipper, Jessi Miley-Dyer didn’t mince words as she explained a six-eight foot shark had breached to the side of the lineup. Great Whites are a regular fixture at Trestles and nobody wanted to be dangling legs with an apex predator nearby. Fanning and Kelly swapped shark tales in the booth. Mick was always going to win that one; although Kelly did a good job of trying to make it his J-Bay shark story, giving a detailed account of the semi he’d lost against Mick before the shark showed up in the final.

Determined not to be upstaged by a leaping fish, Medina pulled out a corked-out rotation aka ‘The Flinstone Flip’ on a nothing left-hander.  The cobblestones rattled as the crowd got on their feet to cheer. Again Medina had demonstrated his ability to summon excellent surfing in big moments.

The 9.03 left Toledo needing a 9.7. He dropped an 8.53 with a dazzling combo of frontside moves that had Mick and Kelly almost as excited as they were by Medina’s air. Had he not fallen on the final air reverse he would have nudged closer. As it was he was left chasing a 9.01 as the minutes ticked over.

Toledo for mine had been far more dynamic and better to watch, but he’d made costly minor errors and there was no disputing Gabriel had landed the moves that the judges were always going to reward for degree of difficulty.

Medina the married man had chalked up his third world title. In his acceptance speech, he turned to his wife Yasmin and said, “We deserve this.” The use of the first person plural on the podium was a sweet gesture and an indicator of where Gabriel has gone with his life.    

Medina enters a very exclusive club with World Title number three. Photo: WSL/Nolan

Just when they thought it was safe to go back in the water, another shark showed up at the start of the women’s final. As if the one-all scenario wasn’t tense enough, the women had to contend with potential predators below the surface in addition to the ruthless competitors above it.    

If Medina closed it out in two straight the women’s final played better in the new format. With a heat win each, a world title on the line and a shark lurking, Carissa and Tati both fumbled. Carissa initially dealt with the nerves better, banked a solid seven and backed it up with an eight shortly after. A fifteen-point total after fifteen minutes had elapsed was enough to put Tati in a solid combination situation.

Tati responded by catching the best-shaped wave of the heat so far and committing to a well-timed symphony of trademark backside snaps. The 8.03 broke the combo and left the heat wide open, but Carissa had the momentum and a firm base to swing from. She upped the ante with an 8.6 and left Tati chasing an 8.58.

In the end, Tati found the wave she needed and after a trio of deftly executed snaps was probably one turn away from a world title. Had she completed the final snap on the closeout section we might have seen the most dramatic of finishes and more questions asked about the new format. However, that’s not the way it unfolded and an ecstatic Carissa held on for her fifth title. She’s now rapidly gaining ground on the seven-title record set by Layne Beachley and Steph Gilmore.

Carissa picked up World Title number five after a brilliant campaign throughout 2021. Photo: WSL/Nolan

In the end, no Australian miracle occurred. At least the fans from Down Under could claim that it had been Australian coaches in the corners for both world champions. Andy King had guided Gabriel Medina while Newcastle’s Mitch Ross had played adviser to Carissa Moore. In a tumultuous year for the WSL, there was another Australian hero. Head of competition Jessi Miley-Dyer had guided the CT through COVID quarantines, dealt with cancelled events and kept her head on finals day as sharks threatened to bring the whole show to a stop. You can read more about Jessi’s exploits in the current issue of Tracks.

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