All About the Rip Curl Finals Series
Notwithstanding the abridged 2001 season, this year is the first time since 1994 the Pipeline Masters hasn’t been the final event on the men’s championship tour.
Most years, the world championship is decided at Pipeline, though occasionally a surfer will wrap up the title a contest earlier and the Masters will be a dead rubber. If not for injury, John John would've won the 2019 title well before the end of the year, such as was his domination that season.
Yet even when the title is decided early, Pipe never really felt like a dead rubber as there was always too much at stake, whether it be the backmarkers and their last ditch effort for requalification, surfers trying to jump up to the next rankings bracket, or maybe a wildcard with glory in his eyes. And then there was the surf, which was often spectacular and critical irrespective of the title standing.
Yet the Woz want the title decided at the last event. Even more, they want it decided with the final two contestants in the water. This conversation began back in 2013 when Mick Fanning won the world title at Pipe before his nearest threat, Kelly Slater, got to paddle out. Slater ended up winning the contest but said about the lack of opportunity, "it pissed me off just enough to stick around.”
Thus we have the inaugural Rip Curl Finals Series. Rip Curl signed a three-year deal for the Finals Series so we can assume they’ll repeat the concept for another two years at least.
That said, we all remember Outerknown reducing a three-year Fiji Pro ‘deal’ to one year, or the then-ASP unveiling the mid-year rotation in 2011 only to scrap it in 2012. Changes come with an upbeat press release, and get disappeared with little fanfare - in pro surfing, nothing is set in stone.
Using Trestles as the location makes sense in that it’s a reliable wave, which is in season, and despite what’s happening elsewhere, the surfers can still enter the US without much hassle.
However, there is also a notable downside. As a south-facing wave in the northern hemisphere, Trestles often receives swell created vast distances away. In his forecasts, Craig has noted that, though there’s an eight day waiting period, the likeliest days will be from a storm that deepens southeast of New Zealand, the swell then travelling approximately 10,000kms to Southern California.
Given this information, there are two things we can be sure of when the swell arrives: It’ll be well groomed, and it’ll be inconsistent relative to the other waves on tour.
The inconsistency could well be the deciding factor in who prevails at Trestles. “The key factor will be how many waves in a set and how many sets in a thirty minute heat,” says Steve Shearer, adding, “It favours Morgan Cibilic and his traditional power surfing.”
The rationale is based upon surfers going to the air only after they’ve got two solid scores on the board, and with fewer chances to lock in a score surfers will stick closer to their bread and butter approach.
It’s the opposite from what we saw in the Olympics where the low period windswell allowed surfers to ignore priority and catch waves non-stop, attempting air after air until something stuck - though it's worth noting Italo won gold with traditional power surfing. Surfers that like to sit outside the priority system and catch a lot of waves - think Italo Ferreira, Gabriel Medina, or Sally Fitzgibbon - will have to adjust their approach and find something else that works for them. And it goes without saying that, with only three or four sets per heat, priority mistakes will be crucial.
In the Men’s draw, we have three aerialists and two rail surfers. Despite its reputation as a skatepark, Trestles doesn’t easily lend itself to aerial surfing: the face is slopey, the lip thin. At Rottnest Island, Conner Coffin tried to extract himself from a combination score by freeing the fins, but that won’t be an option at Trestles where there's no assistance from a pitching lip. Only surfers who know how to pop will get air. Of the men, Cibilic and Coffin would be advised to concentrate on their strengths: tight power surfing, and merciless execution of priority.
At Trestles, the best opportunity for airs is on the left, which is frontside for Italo and Gabriel, so opposing surfers will have to be careful which side of the peak they sit when those two are on the prowl. The more west in the swell the better the left is. Also, it's a shorter wave, however that won't matter if judges throw nines at a one-manouvre wave.
Lastly, is the format which naturally favours the higher ranked surfers who surf less. To win, fifth ranked Morgan Cibilic and Johanne Defay will have to surf up to six times in one day. Conversely, Gabriel Medina and Carissa Moore may only surf two times. Of those two, Moore is in better form than Medina, having won Gold in Japan and a third in Mexico, while Medina made uncharacteristic errors to lose the Surf Ranch Final, lost in the Quarters in Japan, and lost to Deivid Silva in Mexico.
While it's true that surfers can keep building throughout a day of competition, getting more in tune with the conditions, their body, and their boards, the probability of the fourth or fifth ranked surfers winning - both of whom must win their first three heats to even make the final - is slim.