Tahiti Pro 2023: Finals Day
Tahiti Pro 2023: Finals Day
Absolutely riveting Finals Day with a changeable, sometimes chaotic Teahupoo lineup offering enough hollow moments for tube-maestros to ply their trade.
None more outrageously or prodigiously than runner-up Gabe Medina, who lost a tight final - 15.00 - 15.66 - to Jack Robinson, who was the sole surfer on Finals Day not made to look foolish by Gabe’s Teahupoo mastery.
Congrats to Jack. He now gets a start for Finals Day, with the chance to redeem both an injury disrupted year and a poor showing at Trestles last September. His staring down of a rampaging Medina, who had him in deep combination in the opening ten minutes of the Finals, before icing two highly technical tube rides after long waits was fully worthy of the win. An insane Final that always looked like Medina’s to lose.
The tragedy of Medina’s loss is we are robbed of both his appearance on Finals Day (unless they rejig the “rules” to allow him to replace the injured Ewing) and a start for him in the Olympics next year in Tahiti. It’s a bitter irony that the modern day master of Teahupoo will sit on the sidelines while we watch higher ranked surfers tube dodge waves that Medina would have surfed into the next dimension.
A small rewind. We did a huge disservice by overlooking Leo Fioravanti in the opening two wraps. I missed it, but so did you below the line and that was a bad miss by all of us. Leo topped the scoring on Day One, made mince-meat of Jordy Smith in the Round of 16, then put away wildcard Kauli Vaast in the Quarters.
For the majority of the contest, the first big scoring ride won the heat, and only eventual winner Jack Robinson was able to break that golden rule. Leo consistently made ‘em from deep and made ‘em from behind the foam ball. He was the total dark horse to make the five, which I hadn’t even mentioned.
The job of a competitive surfer is to compete and win, and that is something I’ve always enjoyed about Medina’s approach. We need bad guys, villains, people we watch in the hope they lose, and the sport is worse off now that Gabe has transformed into a nice guy. No-one is willing to step up to that role, especially not Jack Robinson.
Jack had to defeat his friend and travelling buddy Yago Dora en route to the Final, knocking him out of the Final Five picture. Heavy stuff. He downplayed it in the presser, emphasising their friendship and framing the heat by downplaying the competitiveness, seeing it instead as an opportunity to “surf with him and have fun”. That was fakery and we all knew it. For Jack to progress, Dora had to lose. And he lost a lot. Title shots are rare, that may be Dora’s single opportunity. Jack took that from him. That may be a bitter pill for Dora to swallow once the adrenalin wears off and the sleepless nights begin.
We don’t have a tube maestro in the Women’s Draw - yet. But there is generational divide. On the wrong side stands Steph Gilmore who offered up a paltry 2.93 heat total to go out with a whimper against Caz Marks.
Fittingly, Tyler Wright is on the right side. She pig-dogged and pulled in repeatedly on waves that offered few exits.
The younger surfers all pull in without fear. Pickles went head down and charged into everything that moved and was one completion shy of besting eventual runner up Caitlin Simmers. Caity went to turns to win that heat and immediately expressed regret and an intention to pull in for the rest of the event. Which she did.
Against Vahine Fierro, Simmers got a late chip shot in on a crumbling corner which went square on the reef. She backdoored the section without hesitation, came out post-spit for a 9.23 and the best women’s tube-ride of the event. What felt like glacial progress in women’s tube-riding, especially backside, accelerated ahead via that ride. Any women watching on the Challenger or Qualifying Series will have to now accept that benchmark as future status quo or risk irrelevancy.
The Women's Final was ruined by a squall which came from windward and sent chunks of windswell running through the lineup. Caz Marks made one small tube. Simmers got obliterated freefalling out of the lip on a bomb and that was it. Marks ahead by the length of that single ride.
We waited all morning for the JJF/Medina super heat, yet it was over in the first five minutes. As indicated, the first ride was crucial and it belonged to Medina. He harassed Florence for the deep take-off and Florence was happy to meekly surrender position. Medina capitalised with a deeply-threaded runner for an 8.33. Minutes later he completed again for a 6.17 and Florence was in a combination chokehold. He countered with a weak succession of non-makes; a total capitulation.
My favourite moment of the day occurred soon after. Medina paddled out and around Florence, then straight towards him. Smiling and chatting. I imagined consoling words, as befits the tenor of the times. Seconds later he stroked into a freefall bowl, royal purple board deep behind the foam ball, then exited with head bowed into bright sunshine. Outrageous arrogance. Every Medina/Florence encounter at Teahupoo had been tight, could have gone either way. This one was a demolition, an incredibly one-side display of superiority. If it sends Florence into retirement it would not surprise.
I don’t really give much truck to the surfer as athlete concept. Especially competition surfers who can manage their energy output and have jet skis doing any of the hard endurance work which used to be par for the course (and still is for rec surfers). Two or three half-hour heats in a day is not a tough ask for full-time competitors who have nothing else to do except optimise diet and train for the task.
With Medina though, we have to acknowledge the prodigality of his output and its impact. Eight waves against Florence seemed to barely break the crust and 'surf him in'. His twelve rides against Barron Mamiya in the Semis featured many crushing wipeouts as Medina rolled the dice on 50/50 calls that could have been excellent rides. Each pounding takes a toll. He continued the frantic pace against Robinson with another twelve rides.
A feature of Medina’s era-defining 2014 win against Slater in maxing Teahupoo was the precision and lack of wipeouts. It was the Final before he had his first wipeout. He was fresh, Slater noticeably fatigued. In the end, that was the difference.
Mid-way through the Final against Robinson, minor but noticeable signs of fatigue crept in. The wave selection veered ever so slightly away from 50/50 to 60/40. He rode waves that had no chance of bettering a score. He fell on a regulation cutback. In the end, he was absent when Jack’s heat-winning wave presented itself. Sitting way up the reef. Jack had priority and no doubt would have nailed it anyway, but the energy of Medina’s approach all of a sudden seemed to veer into franticness and desperation. A final bomb set had an opportunity to best Robinson but Medina needed something incredible to make it, and the sense was that he had red-lined for too long to find it.
Physically and mentally, he had given everything in what was the best Final's Day performance of the year, despite being on the wrong side of the result.
That takes nothing away from Robinson. Jack repeatedly referred to his sense of relaxation in barrelling waves. Calm in the chaos has been his defining quality for the last two years. The buzzer beaters and Finals wins against surfers who seem unbeatable keep stacking up.
All that remains now is to crack the uncrackable nut of Filipe Toledo at Trestles.
// STEVE SHEARER