It could be a while before Australia has a men’s surfing world champion
It’s been four years since Australia had a mens surfing world champion. I’d hazard a guess it might be at least a decade before we have another one. Now you might think this is an over reaction to Trestles. After all, despite Wilko and Owen’s early losses, and Julian Wilson’s 9th, those three are all, theoretically, in the world title conversation. It’s just that the conversation is a little one-sided. It’s like the Aussies are whispering to John John and Jordy. From 200 metres away. Into a 40 knot southerly buster. Sure Florence and Smith are aware that the Aussies are saying something, they just aren’t listening.
Now this isn’t about denigrating three of our greatest surfers. Wilson, especially, is easily world title material. However in seven years on tour he has never finished higher than sixth. Wilko too is grouse, but if he was ever going to win one, it was last year, when he had established one of the biggest leads in modern pro surfing history, yet still blew it. That Owen is surfing, at any level, is still remarkable and any talk of world titles should be framed in the context of just where he has come from in the space of 12 months. Also these guys aren’t exactly hot, new talent. They are all approaching 30 and while Kelly, Joel and Mick have proved that age is now less of an issue, they also bagged a few of their world titles when they were in their 20s.
My mindset also isn’t helped by the fact that I’ve been through all this before in other sports. For my sins, I support the Parramatta Eels. Having started supporting them as a grom through the 1980s (yes millennials, people actually lived through the ‘80s and drank VB non-ironically) I thought watching electric footy and winning premierships was my divine right. Just like MR, Tom Carroll, Occy, Dooma and Kong made sure that Australia owned surfing, it was simply the way of the world. When the Eels didn’t make the finals in 1987, I figured it was a mere blip. That blip has now gone on for 30 fucking years and caused me more pain and suffering than any fan has a right to go through. In soccer, Craig Johnstone and Liverpool pulled the same trick. As a kid they loaded me with a sporting arrogance I have yet to shake when they were the best footballing team on the planet for the whole of the ‘80s. That too didn’t last, and they haven’t won a league title since 1989.
I suppose in surfing, Australia has suffered a similar fate. By the noughties Kelly Slater and Andy Irons brought an end to any belief that us Aussies had the world’s best surfers. Apart from Occy and Parko’s emotional wins and Mick Fanning’s consistent one-man fight, there hasn’t been a whole lot to cheer about. I fear there may be even less in the future.
If Wilko, Wilson and Wright aren’t quite up to the once-in-a-generation talents of Fanning and Parko, the gap to the next level is even greater. We have the veteran soldiers like Ace and Kerrzy, the competitively flawed but freakily good Jack Freestone, plus mates Stu Kennedy and Connor O’Leary. Now O’Leary has had an incredible year and looks set for the world stage for a while, but even the drunkest bloke on the Northies balcony on a Sunday night wouldn’t argue that he is a real World Title chance.
That just leaves Ethan Ewing as perhaps our great white hope. However, it’s damaging on both sides to pin the hopes of a nation on an 18-year-old, especially one who has shown neither the maturity or fight to make his mark at the top level in his rookie year. If his time does come, and it may well, it won’t be for a while yet. If we dig even deeper and hit the QS, it doesn’t get any better. There are no Aussies in the top 10, only three in the top 20 and only Mikey Wright with the raw talent that can bring real damage to the CT. Meanwhile the Brazilian conveyer belt of talent keeps churning out CT ready surfers.
Now I live in hope that Australia will soon get another World Title, maybe even this year. After all, hope is a sport fan's sole responsibility. I was there at the Grand Final in 2001 when the minor premiers Parramatta played Newcastle. Which meant I was there when Parra was 18-nil down after 24 minutes. I also watched the game in 2014 when league leaders Liverpool lost the title after their legendary captain Steve Gerard slipped over and handed a goal and the title to rivals Chelsea. Both times, I’ll admit, I cried like a little girl – who has been kicked by Connor McGregor. However the hope persists, the support continues. It’s just that I have been through sporting droughts and I know how they feel. And in the surfing world, this feels like the start of one.