If you've been looking for an example of yin and yang on the Championship Tour (CT), search no further than a pair of highly touted rookies named Connor O'Leary and Ethan Ewing. Ewing, an unassuming 18-year old from South Stradbroke Island on the Gold Coast (also home to Bede Durbidge) came on Tour flying, riding a win at the World Junior Championship in January amid Rookie of the Year buzz. Despite high expectations at the first event of the year, the Quik Pro Gold Coast, his Round Two exit there was not unexpected, yet a deliciously surfed 9.10 in Round One was a promise of things to come.
Then came all the Andy Irons comparisons, an unfair burden for the teenager to bear (lest we all forget in our rose-colored haze, A.I. fell off Tour in 2009). Unfortunately for Ewing, nobody knew at the time that that wave at Snapper would still be the high-water mark of his season by June, after Fiji. As one insider quipped: "He went from can't lose to can't win." J-Bay's a wave that suits his surfing, it's an opportunity to hit reset and start fresh for a surfer who's brimming with talent, but lost for confidence.
On the opposite end of that delicate balance is Connor O'Leary. With his runner-up finish at the Fiji Pro he leapt eight spots up the Jeep Leaderboard into the world No. 7 spot. O'Leary put his season into motion at the Quiksilver Pro when he made a surprising run into the Quarterfinals, then backed that result with three consecutive 13ths through the Australian Leg and into Brazil. Nothing spectacular about a Round Three exit, but he surfed smart and steady, and avoided the dreaded equal-25th. Grounded by his blue-collar roots and well-coached by Luke Egan, O'Leary's support structure has supplied the framework for a bright future.
If any of the seven new arrivals on the Championship Tour threw a big red circle around the Corona Open J-Bay dates on their calendar, it was Frederico Morais. Currently tucked just inside the Top 20 at No. 18, the magic carpet walls of Supertubes are the perfect canvas for the Portuguese surfer's drawn-out lines and power snaps. J-Bay comes at the perfect time for Morais, who needs a good result after Round Three losses in both Brazil and Fiji.
The Fiji Pro provided another example of the ratings pendulum swing for a pair of rookies climbing and falling the rankings -- Ian Gouveia and Ezekiel Lau. By virtue of his 9th in Fiji, Gouveia moved up four positions into No. 23, into a deadlock with Lau. A self-proclaimed tube hound, Gouveia looked comfortable at Cloudbreak and captured one of the biggest scalps of the entire event when he raced out to an early lead against Owen Wright and held on for a narrow win at the buzzer.
Since his breakout third-place finish at Bells, Lau has banked consecutive 25ths and tumbled down another seven spots after Fiji. Since Bells, with the exception of a disappointing loss to Wiggolly Dantas in Rio, the big Hawaiian has struggled lately to break the 10-point mark in his heats. Lau needs to rediscover the raw edge that served him so well during the Aussie Leg.
Despite their struggles at the bottom end of the Jeep Leaderboard, things are finally looking up for the Tour's pair of European rookies, Joan Duru and Leonardo Fioravanti. As of the start of the Fiji Pro, the two a grand total of one heat win between them (Duru beat Josh Kerr in Round Two at Bells). Yet both played a crucial part in the Tragic Tuesday Massacre in Fiji where top seeds were slayed in Round Three by underdogs like something straight out of J.R.R. Tolkien novel. Leo and Joan's Quarterfinal results at Cloudbreak should provide a much- needed boost of confidence and momentum heading into J-Bay. But they'll be wise to remember Shaun Tomson's famous quote about the deceptively perfect righthand point break: It's easy to surf Jeffreys Bay, but difficult to surf it well.
The bottom line for now is this: With the exception of O'Leary, every other rookie on Tour needs to take a long, hard look at backing up their re-qualification efforts on the Qualifying Series. Over the last couple of years, the QS10,000 Ballito Pro in July has become the linchpin for many in the hunt for a top Qualifying Series position. Don't be surprised when the draw in Ballito is stacked with CT heavies.
Catch the Ballito Pro live daily July 3 - 9; local time. The Corona Open J-Bay runs from July 12 - 23.