The Winners and Losers of the 2017 WSL Men’s CT So Far

With 11 events, the WSL Men’s CT  is an awkward length. It leaves us with no true mid-year point to stop and take stock of what the hell is going on. Perhaps the end of J-Bay’s Round 4 is the true middle? Whatever, with Jeffreys Bay done we’re six events down, have five to go, and the year is running away and taking on its own shape, personality, and feeling. And isn’t it an interesting one? A young, close Title race at the top. Surprisingly poor disappointing results from surfing’s winningest winners in the middle. And probably some other stuff too! So let’s have some fun and pluck out some winners and losers from the first six events while we can.

Winner: Matt Wilkinson (1st)

Last year, when Wilko won Bells, not only his second ever CT win, but his second big time victory in a row, he said to Mick Fanning, to himself, to everyone and to no-one in particular, “What is going on?!” And while we celebrated the rise of our larrikin hero, we were asking the same question. His best year at that point was one where he had finished 18th. This improved competitive performance was a surprise, a lovely, brilliant surprise. He then proved it no fluke when he went to Cloudbreak and got himself a second place finish. But just as we started to believe that he could be the real deal, his year got the sort of speed wobbles an over ambitious kid gets skating down a steep hill. Flying off the side of the road, arms flailing into into a series of bushes, he finished the second half of the year with nothing but 13ths and 25ths, vindicating doubters – you don’t go from 18th to World Champ – that that first half of 2016 could just be a fun Wilko anomaly.

This year, that question, “What the hell is going on?!” has not just been answered, but is being completely owned. What’s going on? Wilko is going for the World Title, and surfing like someone who has every right to be named World Champion is what’s bloody well going on. He won Fiji. He got a second place finish at Snapper. A semi-final finish in Rio. And a quarter-final finish at Jeffreys. At this post-midpoint of the year, he is again World No.1. He’s actually on less points than he was on at the same point last year (31,950 v 34,250), but in spite of that, you could say he’s in a much better position in 2017. The incline is less steep, the trucks are tightened, the World Title is right there at the bottom of the hill, and no-one is asking what the hell is going on.

Loser: Mick Fanning (11th)

This isn’t fun to write for a whole bunch of reasons; The adversity the guy has faced. The philanthropic work he’s done and been doing. The heroic surfing performances he’s achieved in the face of tragedy. It’s also not fun to write because Mick Fanning was my pick, a smidge over Gabriel Medina, for the 2017 World Title in the predictions column I wrote in Surfing World at the beginning of the year. But here we are, Mick hasn’t got past a quarter-final in 2017 yet, and while a QF finish is a keeper result for most surfers at most events,

it is below par for Mick when it comes to the events at Bells and J-Bay (probably not a bad result for him at Rio, though), and those being his best results (in a year that includes a dead last at Margarets) points to 2017 being an uncharacteristically rough competitive year for Mick. At 11th, and with a lot of surfing to be done between now and Hawaii, he’s not out of a touch for the 2017 Title by any means, but it’s hard to see him do that without strong performances at the events where he is the no.1 guy. So what’s been the difference in 2017? He looks fit, focussed, and he’s surfing as well as ever. Is it the lower seed that he’s had to battle with this year? Maybe. But my unqualified eye, cast from the ignorant distance of web broadcasts, has another theory. And that’s: Where’s coach Phil McNamara? Mick was one of the earliest champions to use a dedicated coach on the ground at events on tour. Now all but one of the winners in 2017 have done the same (Micro Hall for Wilko and Owen, Ross Williams for John John, Chris Gallagher for Jordy Smith, Yago Dora’s dad for Adriano). Can you draw conclusion from correlation? Sure! It’s become surf folklore that Mick once advised Sally Fitzgibbons that your World Title campaign begins halfway through the year before. In that case, Mick’s taking off to do other things after J-Bay in 2016 is the other big indicator for his poor 2017. It also means that Mick’s campaign for 2018 begins now. That is, if he wants it. Which is the biggest question of all.

Winner: Owen Wright (4th)

Within a month of the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast, it was still uncertain whether Owen Wright would even compete on the 2017 CT at all, following his life threatening brain injury suffered in December 2015, and the subsequent 12 months of recuperation that followed. To come out and surf at Snapper would be a triumph alone, let alone to win a heat, let alone to win the entire freaking event. Owen Wright’s victory at event 1 was as great a sporting performance as it was tear inducing comeback story. Backed by two quarter final finishes, two round 5 finishes, and hanging onto just one 13th, this is already a solid year for any surfer that isn’t a World Champion or prodigious superfreak. He’s built a platform from which he can launch a World Title run if he has the stamina to lift from here. The fact that he’s done that in his immediate return from injury is all the more remarkable.

Loser: Julian Wilson (8th)

At eighth, and with a respectable 23,200 points, this year is far from a write-off for Julian Wilson. He’s in that second pack, chasing down the World Title hunters with his consistent mid-level performances. But consistent mid-level performances should be seen as below par for Julian Wilson. This is a guy who can make the best surf clip of the year as a side project during a week off free surfing in Bali, a guy who is versatile and talented enough to win any event on the tour – be that in small waves or terrifyingly huge, be that with tubes, rail surfing, aerials or a combination of all the above – against any opponent. And how many surfers can you say that about? Three?  

Julian turns 29 in November. If his 2017 stays on the same path, he’ll be heading into his eighth year on tour, ready to turn 30, without ever making the top five. And if his career trajectory stays the same, he’ll retire without even knowing the taste of a World Title race. That’d be an underperformance for the superstar that just wouldn’t sit right.

Winner: John John Florence (2nd)

You could almost call JJF a loser of 2017 so far. Aside from one competition where he looked like the only surfer able to crack the code of how to surf the wave, he hasn’t been very good this year. Nowhere near as good as his ability as the greatest and most talented surfer in the world should and could have him anyway. After his title win, and after that Margarets performance, this title was thought to be coming to John John as easy a magazine subscription in the mail. Kelly Slater, Andy Irons, Tom Curren, Tom Carroll, and Mark Richards are the only surfers to win back to back World Titles in 40 years of pro tour champions. And that’s because it’s a really hard thing to do. Right now, with 31,700 points, he is in a near exact position as he was at the same point in 2016, and still the favourite to be no.1 at the end of the year. In light of how rare a back to back World Title is, that makes the first six events a win for John John, even if his results undermine his abilities as the best surfer in the world.

Loser: Kelly Slater (20th)

In the days following John John’s World Title victory, Slater declared that for 2017 he would get his body together and have one last proper crack at the title. So, of course, the anticipation for how good the greatest of all time would be this year was high. We believed he could do it because he clearly believed he could. He started the year okay with a quarterfinal finish at Snapper before a bunch of meh 13ths, an injury that saw him miss Rio, and now a year ending foot injury. What we were thinking in believing he could win the Title once more? How could we believe that, knowing that the last time Slater has made a final that wasn’t in Tahiti was way back at the 2013 Pipe Masters. With this foot break, Slater does pretty well guarantee himself the injury wildcard for 2018, though. Which means he is figuratively the first to qualify for next year’s CT. So maybe that actually makes him a winner? Surfing is confusing, guys.

Winner: The Corona Open Jeffreys Bay

The 2017 version of this contest was a reminder of how entertaining surfing as a sport can be when the conditions come together. Just take the best surfers in the world, take them to one of the most iconic waves on the planet, and if you get pumping conditions: bingo, we’ve got pro surf gold! Not to mention all the other things that made J-Bay 2017 so exciting: sharks, surfing boats, Filipe Toledo, and the closest and broadest World Title race in years. As perfect an event as they come.

Loser: The Drug Aware Margaret River Pro

With rumours swirling around about an event being cut from the Australian leg of the Championship Tour, Margarets found no luck in taking ten days to run, losing high profile surfers Fanning, Medina, Slater, Parkinson before the end of Round 3, and running at North Point on the slowest day in the history of things that are slow (Josh Kerr didn’t stand up on a single wave in his heat. Score: 0.00). The event was saved by John John Florence’s groundbreaking performance over the course of the event. But every time he wasn’t in the water it was a little hard to watch. There were 51 heats and John John, selfishly, only surfed in six of them.

Winner: Connor O’Leary (10th)

O’Leary was unheard of two years ago. He was a guy working for Surfing NSW, setting up tents on the beach for comps on the weekend. Now in his first year on tour he’s battled through his tough rookie seed to come out of the blocks and to grab a quarter final finish on the Gold Coast and make a final at Cloudbreak. Possibly an even bigger achievement, he has been able to win at least one heat in every event so far, not a single last place finish to his name. Rare in a rookie year. He’s also just so damn likeable, isn’t he?

Loser: Filipe Toledo (7th)

He just won J-Bay in a groundbreaking performance! How could he be a loser? I know, I’m as angry as you are about this, and I’m the one writing it. That doesn’t make sense, but that’s okay, it doesn’t have to, because you know what else doesn’t make sense? Filipe coming last at Snapper. Filipe should be unbeatable at Snapper, his 2015 performance was the best small wave performance in competitive history, right? He was dominating the 2016 event there too, before his result was cut down by an injury which kept him out of the next two events and any chance of figuring in World Title contention for rest of the year. So, on to 2017 then, yeah? Nope, he’s out in Round 2 of event 1, he blows another event he should score well in at Rio, and he gets suspended for Fiji. Bummer. Toledo’s dominant J-Bay win only further proves how 2017 could be a year of “what if” for Filipe. Even without going to Cloudbreak, had Filipe won Snapper, he’d be over a thousand points clear as World no.1 right now. That’s even with the suspension! Wild. Can Filipe win a World Title without being very good in bigger waves? Damn freaking right he can, but it’s going to be hard to do without results at the events he usually dominates.

Winner: Barton Lynch

We’ve seen the 88 World Champ do special comments before, but never before has he been given a solid role and responsibility as a mainstay member of the WSL broadcast team like he was during the  Australian leg of the tour as well as the Outerknown Fiji Pro. Simply: The WSL broadcast is better with him on it. Worse without (though, Shaun Tomson was fun).

Loser: Conspiracy Theorists

With six different event winners over six events, and wildly varying results across age, origin, surfing style and any other metric you want to throw out there… there is just far too little for conspiracy theorists to work with this year. Who exactly are the WSL and head judge Richie Porta pushing though heats at every event in 2017? It can’t be everyone, can it? The only theory that could possibly make any sense would centre around the WSL top brass trying to sell surfing to middle America, but the lack of high profile results for mainland Americans like Kolohe Andino, Conner Coffin, and Nat Young must be just heartbreaking for surfing’s foil hat wearers.

Mike Jennings