Opening Day at the Billabong Pro Tahiti may not have featured 10-foot, blood-and-glory conditions at a place called Wall of Skulls. But even at 3-4 foot, Teahupo'o still provided a compelling backdrop for an entertaining day full of scrappy heats and a few outstanding performances. Commissioner Kieren Perrow delayed the start of the first heat for two hours, hoping for some pesky trade winds to lay down as the sun rose and the temperatures warmed. Scores and conditions improved throughout the day, with the pre-runners of a long period southwesterly swell grew more and more consistent. And with the notable exception of Filipe Toledo, every surfer in the the World Title hunt survived to surf another day.
But it was a rookie who stole the show on opening day.
Ian Gouveia, a self-professed tube hound, could hardly contain himself after posting the highest heat score of Round One. "I was super excited to come to Chopes," said Gouveia, "It's only my fourth time here, and I love barrels, but when it's big it's a little bit difficult." The rookie's 15.00 total heat score came on the back of two good tube rides, dispatching local Tahitian Michel Bourez and fellow rookie Frederico Morais to Round Two. The thin line between victory and defeat at Teahupo'o was not lost on the rookie, however. "It's a wave where anyone can get a 10," he said. "But anyone can also get two 9s in two minutes." The young Brazilian was quick to credit his top-shelf caddie -- 2015 World Champ Adriano de Souza -- for helping him find a way to victory as well. "He's the captain of the Brazilian corner," he explained, "I caddied for him this morning, and he was there for me in my heat."
Earlier in the day, World Champion John John Florence dominated his Round One matchup, setting the pace among the 2017 World Title chasers. Currently ranked World No. 2, Florence has fallen from front-page news in recent weeks. But with all the talk in Fiji about Jeep Leader Matt Wilkinson snatching the yellow jersey and Filipe Toledo's groundbreaking performance in J-Bay, the Champ's opening salvo in Tahiti sent a message to the rest of the CT: overlook me at your peril. His backhand tube riding technique is second to none, surpassing even King Kelly, and he put it to good use in less-than-optimal conditions in Round One at the end of the road. Florence posted the second highest total heat score of the round -- 14.90 -- and sent rookie Zeke Lau and wildcard Aritz Aranburu packing for Round Two.
Another former World Champ, Gabriel Medina, found his happy place while cruising to victory in his Round One clash. As you'd expect from a former event winner, it's easy to recognize Medina's comfort level at Teahupo'o. "I just love being out there, I love Teahupo'o," said the former World Champ, "It makes me comfortable." Above all other stops on the Championship Tour, the Brazilian exudes confidence in Tahiti, relishing the opportunity to unleash the full depths of his forehand repertoire. "I feel confident and I've got a good board under my feet, but everyone is capable of winning this event," he said, "Especially in these tricky conditions it makes it a little harder, but I've trained hard, so I'm happy." A happy, confident Medina is not good news for the World Title chase pack, or the rest of the CT, for that matter.
It was all coming up aces for Adrian "Ace" Buchan in Round One. Buchan dispatched a red-hot Filipe Toledo and Miguel Pupo by posting the single highest scoring wave of the entire day -- an 8.83 -- for a deep tube up the point across the bowl section. Over the course of his career Buchan has developed a close relationship with Teahupo'o. Not surprisingly, some of his all-time best efforts have come in Tahiti, including a win over Kelly Slater in Final of the 2013 Billabong Pro Tahiti. Last year, Buchan made another trip to the semifinals in Tahiti, once again facing off with Slater, who got his revenge against Ace (Slater went on to win the event). With the narrative in Tahiti often fixated on the regular-footer contingent's backhand attacks, Buchan's one of a handful of goofyfooters -- including Owen Wright and Gabriel Medina -- with the chops at Chopes, and a proven track record, to go all the way.
As if to make up for the morning's lackluster surf, three of the most exciting heats of the entire day unfolded in sequential order in Round Two. First up were World No. 3 Jordy Smith and No. 4 Owen Wright, banished in Round One by a pair of power-packed goofy foots, Joan Duru and Italo Ferreira respectively. Smith, who never makes things easy on himself in Tahiti at what's become his voodoo event, pushed on through with a gritty win over Tahitian wildcard Taumata Puhetini. Wright, who faced another wildcard in the form of Trials winner Aritz Aranburu, survived a scare from the Basque surfer, who posted an 8.60 (the second-highest wave of the day) in the latter moments of their clash.
Saving the best for last was Ethan Ewing's win over Filipe Toledo. It was a mistake-riddled affair, with Toledo letting 22 minutes expire from the clock before his opening ride. Both surfers were scraping for 5s, when Toledo took over priority only to inexplicably let Ewing catch a good wave under priority. The Brazilian looked like he was still reeling from his contentious interference call last weekend at the US Open of Surfing. But it was sweet redemption for the young Aussie from South Stradbroke Island, who arrived on Tour with equal amounts of buzz and pressure. During his chat with Rosy Hodge afterward, his sense of relief was almost palpable, few more heat wins in Tahiti will go a long way to putting those bad memories in his rear view mirror.
With a promising forecast for Saturday, Commissioner Perrow has already called the event on for a 7 a.m. start, local time. Barring an unexpected change in the weather, Round Two, Heat 5 will kick off the morning with Frederico Morais vs. Nat Young.