It could hardly have been a more momentous start to the season had it literally been scripted. The event at Pipeline has been one of the most sought-after individual events on the men’s calendar for many years, and this year the women finally got the chance to join the party for the first time (albeit after they finished an event there which had started elsewhere last season). That alone was enough to muster up plenty of interest in the season-opener, but the surprise results on both sides of the draw, as well as some incredible waves, made for one of the most memorable events in recent memory. This is how it went down.
Take a picture of the men’s world rankings right now, because a man who has spent seemingly half of his life sitting atop them is once again perched on top for what may be the last time.
As soon as the event window opened, the Billabong Pro got underway in decent albeit fickle conditions. This lent itself to a first round in which the three-man heats seemed to alternate between complete busts – three of the eight opening round heats saw the winner finish with a score of 7.06 or less – and extremely high-scoring ones, most notably Heats 9 and 10. In the first of those, John John Florence reminded everyone that he’s the best there is at Pipe with a 17.13 heat total. Half an hour later, Aussie Jack Robinson put together an even better total of 18.67, with another pretty decent exponent of Pipe in Kelly Slater not too far behind with 16.57. Seth Moniz also looked dangerous with a 16.44, while fellow Hawaiian Barron Mamiya rounded out the group of surfers exceeding a total of 16 with 16.57.
Most of the big names managed to avoid the Elimination Round; Jordy Smith was the most established surfer who had to surf his way out of it, but he promptly won his heat with a 15.73 total. Morgan Cibilic, after a brilliant 2021 rookie season, was the biggest surprise exit, managing only a 1.83 total after a 5.17 in the round prior in a disappointing start to his season.
Comparatively average conditions prevailed during the Round of 32, but most of the top chances managed to make it through regardless. Conner Coffin was one exception in Heat 1, but after that surprise it was Kelly Slater, Kanoa Igarashi, Leonardo Fiorivanti and Italo Ferreira advancing through to the Round of 16 in the ensuing heats. Filipe Toledo, Moniz, Florence and Smith would also make it through, though a couple of disappointments included Robinson and Griffin Colapinto in a relatively forgettable round.
Fortunately, that would be the last time the word forgettable would be required to describe the event. The Round of 16 started with an absolute bang when Slater went up against impressive local Mamiya. With Mamiya putting together a 15.17 heat total, the GOAT needed a 7.18 for victory with the clock winding down. A week out from his 50th birthday, what did Slater do? Pulled into a heaving Pipe special with three seconds left on the clock for a score of 9.23, of course. Unsurprisingly the rest of the heats in that round weren’t quite as entertaining, though there were some memorable upsets, with Ferreira, Toledo and Smith all eliminated. Florence looked as good as anyone, disposing of an incredibly unlucky Joao Chianca in a high-scoring heat which he won 17.77-16.74.
Slater kept the dream alive in the quarterfinals with an easy win over Igarashi, before Miguel Popo joined him in the semis with a low-scoring win over Peruvian Lucca Messinas. Heat 3 was unequivocally the best of the round; Florence kept his excellent surfing going with a 16.67 heat total, but it wasn’t enough against an incredibly impressive Moniz. Caio Ibelli rounded out the list of semi-finallists with a comfortable 11.67-1.63 win.
Enter the final four. The first semi wasn’t without its controversy, with an interference call against Miguel Popo hampering his chances against Slater; though let’s be honest, no one was exactly upset to see the 11-time world champ go through to the final, even if it was with a relatively meagre total of 9.76. Joining him there would be either Moniz or Ibelli, and the local got things done easily, setting up a final which would have seen much of the crowd torn between Hawaiian loyalty and the incredible narrative which a Slater win would create.
How’s this for a fun fact: when Moniz was born, Slater had already won four world titles. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the 24-year-old Hawaiian would be somewhere closer to his prime than a man six days short of his 50th birthday, and while that’s true you wouldn’t have known it watching the final. Slater tore Pipeline to shreds as he has done so many times in the past, accumulating a 9.00, a 7.17, an 8.17 and finishing with a 9.77 for a heat total of 18.77. Moniz managed a single-wave 9.43 of his own, but couldn’t back it up with a second and was resigned to probably the most memorable second place of his career.
The win leaves Slater on top of the world rankings for the first time since who knows when. The emotion was palpable in his victory speech, leaving many to wonder if he intends to slip into the night after what he described as the “best win of my life”. If he does it would be some way to wrap up one of the greatest sporting careers in history, but his performance last week will equally have left many – likely including himself – wondering just what else he is capable of this year.
Tyler Wright may have stood on the podium as the first ever female winner at Pipeline last year, but given that was an event scheduled and beginning elsewhere in Hawaii which was ultimately moved to Pipeline, there was still plenty of history to be made this year. Wright headed in as one of the favourites to do just that (again), while the likes of Carissa Moore, Tatiana Weston-Webb and Caroline Marks loomed as her major competitors.
The opening round of the event was somewhat forgettable with relatively low scores, and while most big names advanced there were a couple condemned to the dreaded Elimination Round, most notably the aforementioned Marks and Courtney Conlogue. Typically the gun surfers who head to that round are able to escape relatively unscathed, but not so this time. Marks managed just a 3.70, losing to Brisa Hennessy and the incredible Bethany Hamilton to be the first woman eliminated this year and continue her trend of disappointing performances dotted in amongst excellent ones which she established last year. The next heat, Conlogue could only muster up a 4.47 and joined Marks as a surprise early exit.
Onto the Round of 16, and as the conditions improved so too did the scores. Tyler Wright was a notable early winner – though she didn’t have to do much as her opponent, compatriot India Robinson, didn’t manage a wave – before the impressive local Moana Jones Wong caused an upset in Heat 3 by defeating Weston-Webb. Elsewhere, Carissa Moore showed everyone she is every bit a deserved world title favourite with a 14.67 heat total and easy win, before Johanne Defay and Lakey Peterson also put together solid scores to advance.
The standout of the quarterfinals was once again Moore, whose 13.33 was the highest heat total of the round and saw her enter the semis as the clear surfer to beat. She was, however, joined there by some pretty handy competitors. Wright wasn’t at her best in the quarters but did enough to get there, likewise Peterson, while Jones Wong continued her impressive showing at her first ever CT event with the second highest score of the round.
With three of the best surfers in the world waiting for in the semis, Jones Wong’s work was always going to be cut out for her, but she handled it with aplomb. Up against Wright in the first semi, she was brilliant in putting together a 14.00 heat total courtesy of a 7.67 and a 6.33, and while Wright managed an 8.33 on a wave of her own, she couldn’t back it up with a second good score and Jones Wong advanced to the final. The second semi was substantially lower scoring, but to the surprise of literally no one Moore continued on her merry way.
This led to something of a David vs Goliath match-up in the final; the five-time and reigning world champ up against a local in her first ever event. Goliath, however, was felled and then some. Moore put in a disappointing total and only managed 3.73, but even at her best she may have struggled as Jones Wong rode out impressive wave after impressive wave and ended with 14.34.
The win gives her the rare record of one win from one career event, seeing her sitting on top in a top five which was thoroughly predictable with the exception of her. Moore, Peterson, Wright and Defay are all among the favourites for the business, so it’s safe to say that Jones Wong’s impressive win has left her in some pretty good company.
Heading to the Hurley Pro at Sunset Beach, which starts later this week, the two world rankings leaders could literally not be further apart in terms of their respective career stages; Slater having been competing since the Berlin Wall came down and his female counterpart one event into what looks like a promising career. Their wins helped to create a season-opening event which had it all, and those results makes the Hurley Pro all the more enticing.