There are five surfers going into Pipe with a shot at the world title. Each of them comes with their own baggage, context and metrics…
Generally, my shtick is numbers, not words. Average heat score, win percentage, event/wave direction/wave height metrics, yada fucking yada.
Boring as fuck to most red-blooded surfers 93.67% of the time.
When I first spoke to Derek about analysing the title race, he didn’t tell me I’d be following a similar piece by a certain surf-writer doyen, and which you can read here.
I’m under no illusions. The numbers always pale in significance to the broader stories of the surfers themselves. The pros are just as fragile and flawed as the rest of us and there aren’t many metrics to reflect that accurately. Watching Kelly reluctantly coming to terms with his fading success is a gorgeous train wreck that no data set can accurately replicate.
The numbers do have a place, though.
When I find a stat that complements or even heightens the broader context of each surfer’s situation, I can offer a more resounding argument for or against them.
So, here we are.
There are five surfers going into Pipe with a shot at the world title. Each of them comes with their own baggage, context and metrics*.
Pipe Win %: 54.55
Pipe Average Heat Score (AHS): 9.19 (11 heats)
Average place at Pipe: 11 (4 events: 13, 13, 5, 13)
Needed to win a title: A Pipe win is the only way to seal it outright.
Background: Derek’s favourite surfer (and mine) hadn’t won an event until 2018, when he proceeded to win three. Italo still found himself out of title contention due to consistency issues, which he’s improved this season while still locking in two wins from four finals. Peaking beautifully through Europe, and wearing the yellow jersey coming into Pipe, Italo looks like a genuine chance. The problem is, he hasn’t had any standout performances at heavy reef breaks (his best has been a single fifth place result at each of the Pipe/Fiji/Tahiti events and one Box bomb this year).
What to look for at Pipe: There have been several well-defined World Champion archetypes over the past few years: the workhorse (Adriano), the gifted natural (John), the talented contest machine (Mick, Gabriel). Italo isn’t any of these, or to be fair, maybe he’s all of them, he works hard, he competes well, he is focused and he’s certainly talented. What’s different is that none of those traits define him quite like they did the others. For Italo, who surfs fast, hucks any section, slays coffees and throws down some of the most entertaining claims on tour, it’s raw energy that will define his success. A fantastic trait, no doubt, but the question of whether it will be enough to get him through the tightest title race in years, at the biggest venue on tour, will be fascinating to see answered.
Pipe Win %: 75
Pipe AHS: 13.78 (35 heats)
Average place at Pipe: 6.25 (8 events: 5, 9, 13, 2, 2, 13, 5, 1)
Needed to win a title: To finish one round/place above Italo and not behind any other contenders.
Background: Since 2013, Gabe regularly made Europe his bitch and cruised to three Pipe finals. But after his worst-ever France result and a priority mistake in Portugal, Gabriel’s seemingly inevitable third title was put on ice. He still has the second best win percentage and best AHS of all surfers this season, and he has the best record at Pipe of all the contenders. His error against Caio, while stupid, did result from him being so fucking hungry to win, a characteristic of champions. While he has cooled recently, there are still plenty of positives for Medina heading into the chaos of Pipe, with most betting agencies keeping him as the favourite to win this year.
What to look for at Pipe: Could the ice-cold Medina suffer another uncharacteristic melt? Will he back off with his hassling strategies and just let his surfing talk? What will Neymar and his millions of keyboard warriors to do to Gabe’s opponent if he’s eliminated early? With a solid history at Pipe and heavy favouritism, Gabe’s real story will be whether he will bounce back from Europe or continue to end the season with a whimper.
Pipe Win %: 36.84
Pipe AHS: 9.68 (19 heats)
Average place at Pipe: 15 (6 events: 25, 5, 13, 9, 25, 13)
Needed to win a title: He will need a best-ever result at Pipe. If he wins, and Italo/Gabe don’t make the final, then he’ll be the 2019 champion. Anything else, and the variables become all-consuming.
Background: Filipe managed to move beyond his ‘small-wave specialist’ reputation with an increasingly formidable rail game and solid performances at respectable rights including J-Bay and Bells. What he hasn’t managed to shake is his reputation for holding back in juicy waves, especially on his backhand. Poor efforts in Tahiti and at the Box this year only entrenched the perceived depth of Filipe’s big wave weakness. It’s increasingly likely that, if he’s ever going to win a title, he’ll need to wrap it up in Europe.
What to look for at Pipe: Remember when Pipe was meant to have been pulled from the tour? Permits and politics were all stacked against the WSL and there was talk of an alternate season-ender in friendlier reef breaks off the coast of Western Sumatra? Filipe must be pining for that alternative reality right about now. The big question everyone wants to know about Filipe in this title race is, Will he go? If we get proper Pipe, then all eyes will be on Pip. At least he’ll be too consumed by the waves to worry about the title details.
Pipe Win %: 52.94
Pipe AHS: 11.43 (23 heats)
Average place at Pipe: 11.89 (9 events: 17, 5, 13, 13, inj, 25, 13, 5, 13, 3)
Needed to win a title: “If Jordy wins the Pipe Masters and Italo loses before the final, he will win the Title,” says the WSL. Ain’t that a big ask.
Background: This hyper-talented serial under-achiever had his best Pipe result last year with a close semi-final loss to eventual winner Medina. While Jordy’s consistency this year has been an asset, it’s also a weakness as he must progress further than his peers to improve his overall total. He’s peaking at the right time, with a positive result in Portugal and clutch effort against Kanoa, but Jordy again showed fragility in the final when presented with a red-hot Italo.
What to look for at Pipe: Jordy won’t have as much to prove at Pipe as Italo/Filipe/Kolohe. If Backdoor fires, he could be right there amongst it. But if a competitor drops a 10 on him, he will need to do more than simply burn them while in a combination situation. Jordy’s biggest obstacle seems to be between his ears, so it will be high drama watching to see when/if he’ll crack.
Pipe Win %: 37.5
Pipe AHS: 9.35 (21 heats)
Average result at Pipe: 17.75 (8 events: 25, 13, 25, 13, 25, 3, 13, 25)
Needed to win a title: Divine intervention. This sucks for Brother as the big man seems to be working for the Brazilians. Technically, Kolohe can win if he makes the final at Pipe. This is good because it doesn’t require him to win an event. It’s bad because it requires all four of the other contenders to get, at best, seventeenths (Medina, Filipe and Italo) or ninths (Jordy). If they progress further, then the numbers get tighter and tighter. For example, Gabriel or Italo need only a fifth to negate Kolohe’s result entirely.
Background: After wearing the Yellow Jersey in Tahiti, Kolohe flatlined with consecutive seventeenths and missed a title via his one possible avenue: consistency (winning events doesn’t seem to be his thing). He got thrown a massive bone via Medina’s European fade, but again managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of potential victory against fellow title choker Jordy in the Portugal quarters. His Pipe record smells worse than Griff’s Quik Pro France wetsuit.
What to look for at Pipe: The only acceptable outcome for Kolohe would be to pull off an inexplicable and long-overdue event win. It still wouldn’t guarantee a world title, but it might be enough to get the monkey (and keyboard hacks like myself) off his back going into the 2020 season. My biggest consideration towards Brother at this event is trying to guess which local wildcard will bring him undone, as I’m looking for a cheap option to round out my fantasy team.
So, who will win?
The numbers say Medina. If Jordy hadn’t been pantsed by Italo in the final a few days ago, I’d say he’d have had a good shot. His numbers would have been slightly better than Italo’s and he would have had the confidence needed to pull it off. Kolohe’s situation is too schadenfreude, dependent on the failure of others. Filipe needs to overcome so many years of well-supported data against him in big waves. Italo could definitely win, especially if he builds momentum and starts running off pure adrenaline, but I feel this may be his cliched ‘lose one before you win one’ year.
So, Medina for 2019.
Italo for 2020.
*All stats taken from my own databases. They vary from some WSL stats as they only include 2013-2019 data and because the WSL scores a second place in a three-man heat as a loss.