"But although he’s flavour of the month right now, there’s a sense that his smoothness and perfect positioning often masks the difficulty of what he’s doing, and that presents a problem we’ve seen before."
The culmination of things is so often a let down.
Christmas days, birthdays. Eventual coupling after intense flirtation. Childbirth.
Surf competitions, especially.
How many times have we been tantiised, tickled and teased through the early rounds, only for Finals Day to fizzle limply to a close?
Not so this time. J-Bay delivered from beginning to end in a three-day blitz and without a lull.
Yesterday’s critique about lack of drama and true sporting tension remains valid, but that’s a problem of a structural and perhaps philosophical nature to chew on another time.
Viewed simply as a standalone contest, we’d have to consider J-Bay an unqualified success.
Beyond the quality and consistency of the waves, the best heats occurred on Finals Day, including the final itself, and that’s a rare bird.
If there’s a clear-eyed surfer alive who doesn’t consider Ethan Ewing to be a just and worthy winner, I’d invite you to stand up and state your case.
The first superb battle today was fought between Kanoa and Italo in the second quarter final.
With just over twelve minutes on the clock and holding a slender lead, Kanoa broke his leash. Whilst he was on the beach, Italo dropped a well-deserved nine.
Fewer than four minutes remained by the time Kanoa made it back into position, and only two when he spun on a wave significantly smaller than that of Italo’s high score.
From the start, it didn’t look like having the potential for the 7.91 he needed, but somehow he turned an average looking wave into an excellent score that was impossible to disagree with.
If you didn’t see it, I invite you to watch the three turns performed in the mid-section of the wave, after his lip-line carve and before his brief cover up. All critical, and not a pump to be seen.
It was smooth, beautiful surfing, and although the finish after the tube was a little safe, he certainly deserved the 8.33 he was given that turned the heat.
Lost in the drama was how Italo sustained the injury that saw him limping up the beach in the aftermath. Luke Egan reported from outside the treatment room in hushed tones that suggested Ferreira was fighting for his life. Fortunately, he wasn’t.
Kanoa was typically complimentary of himself in his post heat interview, remarking on his “grit”, among other attributes. This might be grating if it weren’t for the fact that everyone else seems to be adopting Jack Robinson’s patented blandness and being “in the moment”.
Fuck that, Kanoa seemed to say. I’m the present and the future.
Two of the best backhands of the event were up next in O’Leary and Dora, but really it wasn’t much of a contest.
The clear difference was illustrated not just through Dora’s turns, which were a little more critical and varied, but through his criminally underscored 6.5 for a backside rotation that I’d doubt O’Leary has in his locker.
UNDERSCORED, it reads in my notes in block capitals.
The rotation was high, clean and explosive. One of the best we’ve seen all year.
It was one move on a wave of lesser quality when scores were being awarded for multiple turns, but here’s the thing: it was the best possible surfing that could have been done on that wave. Not only that, but perhaps only three or four other men on Tour could have done it.
When you can do manoeuvres no-one else can, especially the surfer you’re competing against, you should be appropriately rewarded for it.
Jordy vs Ethan to round out the quarters was predictably disappointing for a heat so hotly anticipated.
Ewing won with a paltry heat total of 11.50, but Jordy more or less gave it to him by pulling into three closeout barrels in a row. It was a strange tactic for someone who professes to know the wave so well. He couldn’t manage a score over four points, a significant comedown from yesterday.
Over at Swellnet, Steve Shearer lauded Smith as the best surfer never to win a world title. For someone who’s never made any impact in hollow lefts especially, I think that’s a stretch.
Much as I appreciate Jordy’s talent, in the modern era I might put Taj Burrow, Julian Wilson and even Dane Reynolds ahead of him.
Shit, I might even throw Jeremy Flores and Owen Wright in contention, too.
What do you reckon?
Despite being out of the water for Finals Day, Kelly Slater had his say in the booth.
We were reminded once again just how superb he is in this role. Aside from his encyclopaedic memory, and his authoritative knowledge, there’s little flubber. He can dissect performances and give context without wandering too far from the action at hand. Best of all, he’s completely direct and not afraid to criticise decisions or performances.
At this stage, I’d rather listen to Kelly commentate than watch him compete.
Uncle Goat, as Robinson referred to him yesterday, got his own back on the whippersnapper by saying he’d asked Jack who he was pointing at in his continual, over-the-top claiming style. There was no response, apparently. Jack seemed to have been caught a little off guard with the question, said Kelly.
Of course, it was less a question than a masterful shaming.
Chalk that one down as a Slater victory.
The second best heat of the day was Yago and Ethan’s semi final.
A mere 0.17 points separated the two men when the horn sounded. The definitive blow was Ewing’s opening wave.
The surfing was clean, incisive and powerful.
(In a hushed tone I might suggest there was a little wiggle in some of the bottom turns, but just a little.)
“I don’t know how you surf that wave better,” said Slater, matter-of-factly. “Give him a nine.”
The score came in at 9.07.
It was surprising to note this was his first “excellent” score of the event.
Yago responded by going to work on his backhand with the same arresting style he had for the past two days. A mid seven followed by a mid eight gave him an early lead, but Ewing was always going to overturn it.
Yago threw everything into his turns to try and regain the lead. Needing an 8.77, he launched an inverted rotation to finish a solidly surfed wave. It was another example of a repertoire his opponent didn’t possess.
Slater said no, then yes after examining the replays.
The judges took their time.
Eventually, three of the five gave him the score he needed. The average somehow came shy of the requirement by the slimmest of margins. 8.70.
And so to the final, and possibly the most entertaining heat of the event. An ideal scenario seldom realised.
Jack Robinson began ominously with an 8.83, despite pumping down the line for some distance on a foamy part of the wave then kicking out. There was no dynamic exclamation point we might expect to warrant a high eight.
Some of the waves today required a bit of nursing through the middle section. One of Ewing’s advantages is that he makes going straight look good.
In addition to his patience and poise, he makes few mistakes and rarely falls. This was evidenced again in the final. Beyond his first score of 0.50, which I didn’t see but presume was a kick out, his other four waves in the final all scored over seven.
As in his semi, a nine was decisive. It was punctuated by a significant claim, perhaps not the first time Ewing has ever claimed a wave in competition, but certainly the first we’ve seen.
Perhaps it was a genuine and unconscious expression of emotion, as all good claims should be, or perhaps he was succumbing to peer pressure and the zeitgeist of this current crop of WCT surfers.
Or perhaps, as I’d like to believe, it was a combination of genuine emotion plus tongue-in-cheek mockery of Robinson’s habitual and overused pointing claims.
Robinson fought hard to get the 7.98 he needed to turn it, even displaying tactical nous of the highest order to sneak a wave under Ewing’s priority. It was a move that peeled back the vicious competitive layer underneath the zen facade, and I for one enjoyed it immensely.
But in the end, the people’s choice won, and when he did it seemed both satisfactory and correct.
It’s just a shame that an all-but-assured place on Finals Day will not be at a location that does justice to Ewing’s surfing.
Expectation is a heavy burden. No-one knows this more than Ethan Ewing.
In 2016, at just 17 years old, he finished second on the QS and won the World Junior Championships. Super-stardom seemed assured, and people weren’t shy of saying it. But his first year at WCT level in 2017 was an abject disaster.
Despite being compared to Andy Irons at every turn, Ewing barely won a heat. He exited nearly every comp in last place and silence, finishing the year in 34th position.
Back to the QS he went, eventually finding his way to the main Tour again for the shortened 2021 season. He was better, but still burdened with the weight of Australian expectation and AI comparisons that had transitioned from bizarre, to ludicrous, to simply embarrassing.
But comparisons are no longer necessary. This season we’ve finally seen the Ethan Ewing that was prophesied.
J-Bay might be his first victory, but the carpet has been rolled out all season. There is no other surfer on Tour whose style and technical gifts are so universally admired by pundits and fans alike.
But although he’s flavour of the month right now, there’s a sense that his smoothness and perfect positioning often masks the difficulty of what he’s doing, and that presents a problem we’ve seen before.
A problem that looks a bit like Joel Parkinson.
Parko eventually won a title, of course, but it seemed so overdue it was almost too late. His surfing never evolved, the surfing around him did.
In some ways Ethan Ewing seems to fit in a different era. It remains to be seen if he can compromise his aesthetic to fit the competition mold.
Really, it’s an impossible transition. If you had inch perfect technique and flow like Ewing or Parko, why would you change?
But although beautiful surfing wins hearts, dirty surfing more often wins heats.
Let’s forget that for now, though.
Forget that it’s all a bit pointless because we’re going to Trestles regardless.
And forget that style doesn’t win world titles.
Let’s just stay in the moment, as they say.
Beautiful surfing won J-Bay, and today we can celebrate that.