Julian Wilson's 9.93. Photo: WSL/Cestari

Did the WSL Judge Julian’s Quik Pro Winning Wave Wrong?

Or how Will Smith, the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, could fix surfing’s judging system.

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The scaffolding upon Snapper Rocks is coming down. The surfers have left their Gold Coast holiday apartments and have headed south. And all that remains of the 2018 Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast are YouTube clips, our memories and a bunch of scores.

Now that we’ve decompressed, celebrated the win of Julian Wilson, reminisced on a bloody ripper of a final day at pumping, wild Kirra, let’s take a look at that last remnant of the event: the scores.  Let’s look at one in particular. Julian Wilson’s opening wave of the final, the epic barrel that logged him a 9.93, and set him on the path to claim his fourth event win.

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Before we get started, let’s establish that this was a very well judged event. As perfect as judging the subjective art of surfing can get, really, and fantastic start for new WSL head judge Pritamo Ahrendt.

So, Julian Wilson’s tube: A lot of people are stating on social media and wherever this clip appears that the judges got this score wrong, that the wave is clearly a 10. And they are right that the judges got this score wrong, but not about it being a 10. The WSL judges should have scored it lower. Much lower. And Will Smith can tell us why. Let me explain for a second.

One Saturday night of my childhood I was watching Red Faces on Hey Hey It’s Saturday. For those born after 1990, Hey Hey It’s Saturday was a weekly variety show that pretty well all of Australia watched on Saturday nights. Before bed for children, before going out for 16 to 35 year olds, with dinner for 35 year olds to pensioners. Everyone. Anyway, on this particular Saturday night American superstar Will Smith was in town promoting his blockbuster film, Independence Day (or was it Men In Black?). And he got to be one of the three judges of the weekly talent contest, Red Faces.

When the first of three acts finished their performance, they threw to the Fresh Prince for his score out of ten.

He held up an 8 and said, “I’d give you a ten, but there could be somebody better.”

The logic of it blew my puny 90s mind. I would have given you a ten, but there could be somebody better. Genius.

It’s simple and sound. To Will Smith, the first performance was perfect, but having no idea what the rest of the show could deliver, he scaled it down to an 8.

Judging surfing is a tough, and fallible gig. Surfing is subjective, and near impossible to reach a consensus as to what is good and bad, try as they might to define a criteria and apply it to something beautiful. “Something pointless and elegant…” as Tim Winton would call it.

So when judging waves in surfing heats, we have to ask what the ultimate purpose of trying to judge is.

So let’s say that judging does serve one purpose, and one purpose alone. And that one purpose is to ensure that the surfer who performed best in the competitive heat of surfing advances, or wins, and the surfer who performed worse does not.

In this case the judges are judging to decide who should win the Quiksilver Pro between Julian Wilson and Ace Buchan. And to do that they have the tools of a ten point scale, and four waves to apply them to.

And if this is the case, why to give the first ridden wave that matters in the final, the first wave that’ll count towards the ultimate result, a 9.93 – particularly with over 30 minutes of the event to go, in an unpredictable field of play – is not a smart move.

Look at when this score was logged:

By doing so, the judges have given themselves a scale of 0.07 to work with for any wave that betters Julian’s, with over 30 minutes to find one.

It’s mathematical insanity.

Particularly in the line-up that was presented to them that day at Kirra. Let’s read Sean Doherty’s description of said line-up on the final day:

“…by the time they were setting up at Big Groyne guys were arm-barring overhead pits, and with the tide dropping it would only get better. On the news of Stephen Hawking’s death they were sending them out into a field of black holes. No one got near the best ones. Watching on, they were hard to make in your imagination, let alone in the water.

The problem is that Kirra is a long bank, and while there are black holes all up and down it, being there when they open up is tricky. It’s not like Snapper, which has the rock for reference, and all eight surfers left in the event watched on trying to work out where the hell they needed to sit.”

TL;DR, absolutely anything could have happened in the final in that Kirra line-up.

A similar example where the judges screwed themselves over with their own scales was Joel Parkinson’s perfect heat at the Oakley Pro Bali in 2013.

The judges, if I remember correctly, threw John John Florence a 9.73 for the first significant ridden wave of the heat. A 9.73! Leaving them just 0.27 of a bajillion numbered scale….  which, of course, left them with bugger all room to play with and led to the the inevitable moot point of a perfect heat.

The top comment under this YouTube reads: “a 6 and a 10.” But nope, those waves are worth exactly the same.

Kelly Slater in a post-heat interview commented, (again, if I remember correctly), that the judges had left themselves with nowhere to go after the initial 9.73. Which begs the question, why on earth would you ever give over a 9 to the first wave of a heat?

New head WSL Judge Pritamo Ahrendt would presumably, and with justification, say that Julian’s score at Kirra was based on both the conditions of the line-up and its scoreable waves the judging team would have been surveying all morning, as well as the previous heats that had been run that day – including Griffin Colapinto’s 10.

Which makes sense, but it’s not right, is it? If scores are there to work out which surfer should win the heat, then why would you judge any wave against one from a different heat, one that has absolutely no bearing or affect on the one being judged in the present? Why would you paint yourself into that corner?

Surfing isn’t gymnastics, or figure skating, it is unlike any other sport in the world with a judging criteria, because no field of play can ever be repeated. It is random. Unpredictable. Amazing.

The other counter to all this would be that, well, 10s are fun, 10s add to the spectacle, the excitement, the entertainment of an event. And to that I have no reply other than to say that, sure, I don’t want to get rid of 10s. I love 10s too! And I don’t buy the logic that there should never be a ten rewarded. The logic of: “What if they did that wave and then did a backflip.” If a high score has been set at an 8, and then a surfer goes two points better than that… twice, so be it. No-one’s going to be bummed from there on after such exciting surfing. But with the unprecedented and mostly unfair scrutiny the WSL judges are being put under in modern pro surfing, they need as much room as they can get, and at the moment they’re not using it. They need to listen to Will Smith.

Mike Jennings