“Matt Wilkinson will be so far ahead in points that not a single person could catch him at Margaret River.” — if you were to ask the casual WSL fan to list their top 5 likely scenarios for the state of affairs after the first two events of the season, I doubt many would have said that. I doubt many would have put it in their top 50 likely scenarios.
I am a regular-if-skeptical viewer of competitive surfing. It provides far more frequent surf entertainment than video parts, and I have an almost rabid hunger for surf to watch. The WSL at least gives us a chance, greater or smaller depending on the venue, of seeing something ridiculous happen in between the hours of cutback doldrums. But the reality of the last few years is that most of the people expected to win heats (and contests) end up winning. The shakeup of the Brazilian Storm is old news: people expect Medina, Toledo, and De Souza to be around at the business end of events by this point. With a few exceptions, the WSL is becoming old hat.
Which is why this year is so exciting. New faces at the top (and bottom) and unexpected shake ups mean that it’s tougher for us to pick out all the quarterfinal finalists before an event even starts. It might be bad for your fantasy surfer team, but goddamn if these aren’t great reasons to watch surfing:
1. Matt Wilko Won 2 Contests Back-to-Back
The first two contests, in fact, including Bells, where no goofy-footer has rung the bell since Occy in 1998. Yes, this is the same Matt Wilko you’re thinking of, with the goofy wetsuits and rollerblades-as-contest-transport. While his success on the junior series and sporadic QS results means he does know how to win, he’s far more known for his personality on tour than his results. He’s had to scrape by requalifying on the QS in recent years, so yeah, it’s safe to say that not one but a pair of wins is a shock. Wilko is, in the parlance of American spring sports, an absolute bracket buster.
Before last year, there were rumblings of a “leaner, meaner Wilko” that never really materialized. So when it was announced that Glenn “Micro” Hall would be coaching him full-time this year, most people didn’t give it much attention. After all, Wilko has now won more events this year than Micro won heats in his CT career (don’t fact-check that hyperbole). He’s more than 10,000 points clear of second place, which means no matter who wins Margaret River, he will still be wearing yellow in Rio.
2. A Rookie, An Injury Replacement, and Kolohe Andino Walk Into a Bar…
Your men’s top 5 is technically 7 people at the moment. Besides our aforementioned lovable, hard-drinking ratings leader, there’s a whole lot more surprises sitting underneath him. Santa Babs-raised rookie Conner Coffin sits at #2: his grooming at right-points as a grom means his surfing at Snapper & Bells isn’t surprising, but his competitive success against the world’s best at those locations is still surprising. Stu Kennedy, an injury reserve atop a bevvy of Tomo surfcraft, has shaken up the scene, embarrassing Slater on his own brand of surfboards (expect to see him in many more events with so many injured surfers this year). Jordy and Kolohe have always been good surfers, but inconsistent-at-best competitors, so their results speak volumes for the strange times currently washing over the WSL. The least surprising names are Mick Fanning, whose abridged year means he won’t stay where he is for long, and last year’s RotY Italo Ferreira. Who knows how long this current ratings leader smorgasbord will last, but it’s fun while it lasts. And speaking of who isn’t at the top…
3. World Titles Winners Aren’t Faring Well
With the exception of Fanning, whose position in the top 5 will fade rapidly as he sits out events, former CT champs aren’t doing so well. Last year’s champ De Souza and 2012 winner Joel Parkinson sit tied at 10th, and the remaining tour champs, Slater and Medina, aren’t even in the top 20! The season is obviously in its early stages, but the odds that this year an unfamiliar face will hoist the championship trophy are probably the best odds in years. The close of the Australian leg will mean the year is over 25% done, and if the old guard is still mired in the middle of the pack holding on to throw-away scores, it becomes do-or-die for results the rest of the way 'til Pipe. That’s a long stretch of near-perfect surfing across a pretty wide range of conditions.
The best news in all of this is that it seems like we’re seeing some parity in the top 34, which we should have seen long ago. The top 34 surfers in the world should all be incredibly close in talent and results: they represent probably less than .0001% of the surfers in the world. Yet in recent years, consistently we’ve seen the same scenarios play out to the same results. It’s more fun to watch surfing when it’s unpredictable, when you have no idea who is going to win a given event. Yes, there will always be favorites, no one should start betting on Toledo to take out Slater in Fiji just yet. But if contests are gonna fill in the gaps between big video parts, at least a few fresh faces will keep the mix interesting.