Finals Series Decides Ultimate Surfers
I’m struck by cognitive dissonance this morning.
Two conflicting thoughts are fighting for primacy upstairs.
- The Woz are an embarrassment to the sport.
- The Woz are fearless innovators.
On the one hand they’ve gone all in on ‘Ultimate Surfer’, which is the last word in disaster viewing; a beyond-ironic caricature of surfing where the skits are as authentic as the ocean they surf in.
And on the other hand, today they crowned an ultimate surfer - two in fact - via the Finals Series at Trestles, an untried concept in surfing and one that attracted a raft of criticism, yet in execution worked wonderfully.
As has been mentioned on Swellnet before, the conversation to put the last two surfers into the water at the same time began the same year the Woz bought the ASP. That was 2013 when Kelly Slater fell one heat short of the title, which instead was held aloft by Mick Fanning before second place Slater even hit the water.
The conversation got louder in the intervening years and despite Italo vs Gabs in 2019 being one of the great winner-takes-all Pipeline finals, in mid-2020 the Woz, now under the auspices of dayglo Erik 'Elo' Logan, announced the Finals Series.
Pro surfing has had contests decided by best-of-three finals before, they were common through the 60s, 70s, and 80s, but this was the first time since the tour began in 1976 that the world title was decided by a one-day contest.
“What if fifth place gets on a roll and wins the day and the title,” was a common complaint - though not so much from Australians as Morgs was in fifth - and even Gabs opposed the format, telling the New York Times:
“I don’t like it because I don’t think it’s fair. You spend your life, a year-long, and now the last event in September, you’re gonna decide all your year?
Yet the fairness of the old system - a clutch comp at Pipe with wildcards in the draw - was also questionable, as Joel Pakinson well knows. In 2009, after winning three of the first five contests and leading going into Pipe, Parko was knocked out of title contention by little-known Gavin Gillette, then placed 388 in the world.
"To have it stolen from under you like Joel just did, it's got to be pretty disheartening for Joel right now," Slater said after that incident.
Today there were no wildcards, only the top five men and women, and it was engineered so that first place has a distinct advantage: they're seeded directly into the finals so surf fewer times, but nor does it come down to the luck of one single heat.
After fog cancelled yesterday’s planned surfing, what could’ve been a disaster turned into a blessing as the waves were better and during the business end broke under brilliant blue skies. And the surfing unfolded much like the format promised with each heat getting progressively better and more exciting - there was even a shark scare to secure those MSM headlines.
In both the men’s and women, the Woz must feel vindicated that Gabs and Carissa - the two leading surfers going into Trestles - won on the day. Yet even more so, that the best-of-three final format allowed Carissa to prevail after an opening dud heat.
No doubt there were mitigating factors for choosing Trestles: close to Woz HQ, same goes surf industry, it's in season in September, while SoCal has minimal COVID restrictions, and as a proof of concept there’s no reason it couldn’t work at even better venues. Try as I might, I can’t think of a location where the format would fall down.
So this is it then. The Woz have determined their ultimate surfers, and they’ve done it in a fair and exciting manner. Everyone’s a winner. We can all agree on that, yes?
Next step, kill the Ultimate Surfer, and this won’t be the last Woz-positive opinion piece you’ll read on Swellnet.
Postscript: As for Pipe, which has closed 27 years of the pro tour’s 45 seasons, it’ll now act as the opener, the spectacle relying more on the quality of the wave than the final rankings it used to determine. It’ll also drop both the ‘Masters’ tag - it’s just the Billabong Pipe Pro now - and the wildcard entries. As for wave quality: late January, height of the season, no sand on the reef, the timing is great.