And why OZ surf fans expect someone to step up.
With the Vans World Cup at Sunset officially underway tomorrow and the Billabong Pipe Masters only two weeks away, most of the chatter is about John John’s quest to achieve ultimate glory by winning The Eddie, The World Title and The Triple Crown in a calendar year.
However, while the whole surfing fraternity is juiced up on John John, Australian surf fans might consider who will challenge for a world title next year. Since the official beginning of pro surfing in 1976 an Australian has won the men’s title sixteen times and nine different surfers have shared in the glory. If you discount the Hawaiians who surf under their own flag, the USA are number two with 15 titles, but those are all shared between three surfers and most were won by you know who. The point being that on paper we are still the most dominant surfing nation and we expect to have surfers in contention for surfing’s greatest prize – but who will it be next year?
In his recent, casual interview with Mark Ochiluppo Mick Fanning insinuated that he wasn’t hell-bent on hanging around.
Mick is an all or nothing kind of guy and one senses that he feels like committing to a year on tour means shutting down aspects of his life that he’s had too much fun exploring in his year off. Unlike Kelly who is a 24/7 competitive animal and craves competitive environments, Mick has a contest mode and non-contest mode. However, Mick’s real talent is knowing how to extract the absolute best out of himself when he does decide to compete. If Fanning does hang up the comp jersey then Australian surfing will definitely be down a genuine title contender. He beat John John at J-bay this year and maybe he figures that’s a pretty good way to go out. He will take with him that rare mix of unapologetic professionalism, cunning, guile and ruthlessness that is required to win titles. There is in Mick what might once have bee termed ‘a bit of the Aussie mongrel’.
In the absence of Mick this year it was unexpectedly Matt Wilkinson who flew the flag for the Australians this year. Wilko’s unheralded bolt to the front of the rankings and extended romance with the yellow jersey had many believing they were witnessing the renaissance of the rock-star surfer – the guy who knew how to have a good time and win at the same time. However, while Wilko proved he had the talent to occupy the rarefied space at the top of the tour rankings, he lacked the sort of bulletproof self-belief and true grit that enabled Fanning to win his titles. Wilko was great as a surprise to himself and everyone else, but once he had something to lose the psychological paradigm shifted and he seemed to lose his way.
It’s the classic plight of the Aussie underdog who does best when he/she is least expected to win but struggles once they are actually in front. Wilko undeniably enjoyed a charmed beginning to the 2016 year with back-to-back victories on the Gold Cost and Bells and a final in Fiji, and it’s hard to imagine him enjoying a start so serendipitous in 2017. If Matt is to be a contender in 2017 then he will have to learn to genuinely see himself as someone who belongs at the top and surf with the appropriate confidence. The ‘aw shucks, look what I just did’ days are over.
On paper, Australia’s best prospect for a world title is Julian Wilson. Wilson’s repertoire is still comparable with John John, Medina and Toledo and his capacity for aerial trickery is underpinned by a genuine power attack. Unlike say Toledo who has manufactured a more sophisticated rail game, Julian has always had one and in big barrels his commitment and lines are certainly not in question. Victory in the Pipe masters last year confirmed his status as a surfer to be reckoned with in waves of consequence. So if Jules is a world title surfer on paper then what does he need to do to ensure his name is etched alongside those nine other Australians who have claimed the title?
Winning heats consistently on the WSL is frequently about finding that range that allows you to consistently snare a pair of eights. It often looks like you are operating at ninety per cent of your capacity with the ability to step it up if the situation requires it. At his best, Jules can perform at a level that few on tour ca match, but he has sometimes struggled to find the zone that regularly puts rides just inside the excellent category. When surfing against Fanning at J-bay in the semis, Julian was still in contention for the title. The waves were small and lacklustre by J-bay standards but Mick, without doing anything extreme, still found a way to look dynamic and explosive. There were no airs, but he was definitely blasting the fins and every turn was fully committed. By comparison Jules just looked a little safe. Without the option of a good air section he didn’t have enough rail in the water or push in his turns to inspire the judges towards the upper margins of the scorecard. Mick had an 8 and a 9.1 and Julian only once score beyond eight. There it was, a pair of 8-plus scores got the job done.
Julian has to find that range and consistently apply it. He also needs to be prepared for changing circumstances in and out of the water. An aura of perfection hovers around the Sunshine coast surfer with the pin-up boy looks, but winning isn’t always perfect. You have to know how to win dirty and success hinges on being able to respond to ever-changing circumstances. If the bubble you live in is too tight and controlled then you will struggle to deal with variables.
In pursuit a winning formula Julian has courted multiple coaching figures in past years, including Jarred Howse and Jake Patterson, however the best-case scenario for Julian would be for Mick to move into more of a mentor role. Fanning hinted at helping out Julian this year but he also flogged him at J-Bay.
Mick would no doubt have some specific insights and training tips to offer Julian, but his mere presence alone might be what Julian needs. Wilson certainly has the pedigree of a world champion but is perhaps in need of some of that Aussie mongrel spirit that Mick undeniably possesses.
Elsewhere Callinan, Cathels, Freestone and Banting all face tough requalification battles. Despite spirited performances at various moments this year none have done anything to suggest they will be title contenders next year if they do qualify. Stu Kennedy has shown he can rally with the best, but volatility is his biggest enemy.
Josh Kerr is not a name normally associated with title quests and it would take a Wilkinson like streak to put him in contention. Ace Buchan is a shrewd competitor, who knows how to make the most of his talent, but lacks the surfing vocabulary to match the likes of Toledo, Florence and Medina in full flight. Meanwhile Parko cruises ever closer to retirement despite still being one of the best tube riders and rail surfers on tour.
As far as rookies go, Connor O’leary looks certain to qualify and will be the sort of guy no one wants to draw in heats. A calculated, savvy competitor who draws precise, powerful lines, O’leary will force judges to look twice at his turns and consider bonus points for power and placement.
Matching the top seed flyers like Florence and Medina will however be difficult if they are on form. As for Ethan Ewing there is no doubting his class and if you listen enough to the commentary it would seem the soul of Andy Irons speaks to him. Ewing has the mark of a future world champion but there is still some speculation that the 17-year-old won’t accept his WCT position. Taj did that and never won the title. Hot streaks come and go no matter how good you are, and in the modern era there is always another emerging surfer ready to devour you. Medina joined the tour as a 17-year-old in 2011. Three years later he was world champion. Australian fans would certainly love to see Ethan grab the spot and give them another surfer to cheer for.
The Quiksilver Pro is a long way off and as last year proved (with victories to Keanu Asing and Wilkinson) unexpected things can happen on the WSL, but it seems Australia may have a tough job of reclaiming a title it hasn’t owned since Joel and Mick went back-to-back in 2012/2013. It seems their hopes rest with a rejuvenated Julian Wilson and a reinvented Matt Wilkinson. Hopefully someone else will get involved and prove me wrong.