Small Supertubes will never live up to the dreamy J-Bay expectations we carry around in our heads. It's a completely different life form. And shaking those expectations can be a challenge for competitors. But the world's best surfers are adaptable, and stay that way with a fresh set of eyes. When they check the surf each morning they quickly let go of what isn't there, and focus instead on what is. It's all about the possibilities. And while J-Bay was small on Saturday, its 3-foot racers were still packing a punch, with no shortage of targets.
The hunt for J-Bay's famous tubes is replaced by the hunt for ramps, and as the event sprinted into Round Four Saturday morning, conditions were ripe for a superheat between John John Florence, Jordy Smith, and a revived Josh Kerr.
They didn't disappoint despite a slow-moving ocean. Jordy opened strong, delivering another impressive combination of moves while flowing well. But John John was having none of it. He took to the skies for a huge forehand rotation, and in the end, the one-maneuver wave earned him an 8.5 and the heat win. While fans were delighted by their show Jordy was seething; and for good reason. He was forced into a dangerous Round Five heat instead of earning a fast-track to the Quarterfinals. Smith felt he delivered more variation in the heat. And in truth, he is displaying a wider variety of moves on the waves at Supers than anyone else. It mattered too, because this heat had serious world title implications.
That's because Matt Wilkinson wobbled this morning.
It seems the yellow-jersey pressure has climbed all over his brain, and he doesn't know which way to turn. His surfing at J-Bay has been sporadic, bipolar even. He was pushing when he needed to pull back, and slowing when he needed to speed up. And it cost him in his match against Alejo Muniz. On paper this looked like a great opportunity for Wilko. After all, Muniz is ranked No. 30 on the Jeep Leaderboard. But at this level nobody can be overlooked, which is why the pressure keeps mounting for Wilko. It was Peter Mel who gave the most sage WIlko advice a few days ago. "He just needs to chill."
In the meantime, sitting not-so-quietly at No. 2 these days is Gabriel Medina, who is very ready to pounce. Medina has nerves of steel, and literally thrives on the drama. And when the going gets tough, like it was today, the tough take to the air. His backhand rotation against Melling in Round Three revealed that he knows exactly what's required. Then again he'll need to stay healthy, and it looked like he nearly broke his leg trying to stick a landing on the inside bricks.
Of course, John John has edged into a dangerous place as well, sitting in No. 3, midway through a year that he has loudly declared he's all-in on competing for a world title.
Although Kelly Slater is moping around at a lowly 26th in the ratings, and has no shot at the world title at this stage, he is still astounding fans at Supers and could very easily be a spoiler in this event. His performance against Michel Bourez and Alejo Muniz was "just like the old Kelly," said one stunned veteran surf photographer who would know.
Slater's board seemed alive, fast, and forgiving. "It's like an evolved version of the board I was riding at Trestles," as Kelly described it. And J-Bay looked a lot like Trestles today.
Jordy was back in form during his Round Five performance, and inspired the local spectators to get their cheers on. It was estimated that 10,000 people were around over the course of the day, and when Jordy picked up that wave for a 9.87 they showed their appreciation with their voices. The roar sounded like a rugby game.
"I've been working on the percentages this year," said Jordy. "All the little things that can change things. If I'm eating good, that's a 5% improvement, and even if I'm hydrated, that's a 3% improvement, and my equipment, that's another percentage, and every one of these adds up."
What does this all mean? "Of course Jordy wants a world title," said his coach Chris Gallagher. "All his training, and his amateur career and his pro career, are all geared towards a world title."
Jordy has a lot of work to do being No. 10 on the Jeep leaderboard, but he'll get a good chance to close the gap on Florence when competition resumes as they'll be squaring off in Quarterfinal No 1. The stakes are huge.
The winner of QF1 will have to get past either Josh Kerr or Kelly Slater, who will star in QF2. Kerr, with his aerial assault game, has been a huge benefactor of the ramps laying around. His result here is already his best of the year. Slater is Slater, and there are now so many layers to this man and his approach that you should just feel free to let your mind wander as to what that means this week.
Fortunately for Florence and Smith, Medina has a tough road ahead on his side of the board. He's up against Julian Wilson again next. Wilson edged Medina in Round Four, sending him into a Round Five battle with Adriano de Souza. Gabe will want revenge, but Julian, you'll recall, has that whole unfinished business thing going.
Oh, then there's that Mick Fanning guy. Yeah, remember that bad ankle? Well neither does he. Fanning will have his hands full with Filipe Toledo in QF4, which is bound to be a good show.
You're going to want to see this.
J-Bay Open Quarterfinal Matches
QF1: Jordy Smith vs. John John Florence
QF2: Josh Kerr vs. Kelly Slater
QF3 Gabriel Medina vs. Julian Wilson
QF4 Mick Fanning vs. Filipe Toledo