Like Filipe Toledo on the men’s side, Carissa Moore locked in a WSL Finals spot courtesy of a victory at the Oi Rio Pro at the most recent Championship Tour contest, while the woman she beat in the final, France’s Johanne Defay, also looks like she will be hard to knock out of the top five. But with the gap between Moore and Lakey Peterson in third place in the world rankings bigger than the gap between Peterson and Sally Fitzgibbons in 11th, all but a couple of surfers at the upcoming Corona J-Bay Open have some chance of making it to Trestles. Let’s take a look at how this massive contest is shaping up.
Carissa Moore’s aforementioned win at the Oi Rio Pro was, surprisingly, her first of the season after she had suffered defeats in the finals of three of the first seven events of the year. The 10,000 points she accumulated for her efforts saw her extend her lead in first place in the world rankings, and the only question remaining to be answered over the final couple of contests before Trestles appears to be whether she will head to the Finals as the first or second seed. A win at J-Bay would basically assure her of first spot barring a disaster in Tahiti, and based on her performance here last time the CT visited South Africa, there’s every chance of that eventuating. She won the 2019 contest – just the second edition of the women’s event since 2000 – in impressive fashion, scoring at least 14.33 in every heat with the exception of the Seeding Round, which she won easily anyway. Her strong rail game means the wide open expanses of this peeling right-hander suit her to a tee, and based on the way she surfed in Rio, the five-time world champ will be hard to stop.
Moore is the runaway favourite for both the world title and this event, but her biggest challenger for both might be Johanne Defay. After a middling start to the year which saw her eliminated in the quarterfinals in the first five contests of the year, the Frenchwoman has gone on a tear over the last three events, with her results during that time reading first, third and second in that time. The 28-year-old is in the best form of her career, and has surfed reasonably well here in the past, too; she made the quarterfinals in both 2018 and 2019, with an average heat score of 13.54 and 13.69 respectively in those two years. Defay has skyrocketed into contention for the world title off the back of her recent performances, and if she can snag a win here she will potentially snatch the yellow jersey off Moore’s back heading into the final event of the year before the Finals.
The competitor Defay has overtaken as Moore’s biggest contender for the world title is Tyler Wright, but it’s not exactly the Aussie’s fault. What was her best season for years has quickly unravelled over the past four events; after she was eliminated early at the Margaret River Pro by a rampaging Molly Picklum, she was forced to withdraw from the Roxy Pro G-Land after picking up COVID, which also caused her to sit out the Surf City El Salvador Pro. As if she needed any more frustrations, visa complications then saw her miss the most recent event in Rio, and those four consecutive poor results have seen her tumble from second to tenth in the world rankings. Nearly 7,000 points off fifth place, she is now up against it to make the WSL Finals, but don’t count the two-time world champ out just yet. Brisa Hennessy in fifth is stumbling, and Wright is more than capable of putting together two consecutive big results to round out the season to catapult herself back up the rankings. She missed the past two editions of this event through injury, but a wave with as much canvas as J-Bay invariably brings out the best in the best surfers, and Wright certainly fits into that category.
The Next Tier
Steph Gilmore’s quest for an incredible eighth world title took a slight hit when she was eliminated in the Round of 16 at the Oi Rio Pro, but sitting in a tie for fourth in the world rankings she is still well-placed to make it through to Trestles; particularly now that we’re heading to a wave at which she’s had success before. The laconic Aussie was the winner of the first women’s event here in 18 years back in 2018, averaging 14.73 per heat en route to what was a fairly dominant victory. Those sorts of performances have been fewer and further between over the past couple of years, but as she showed when winning in El Salvador just a few weeks ago, she’s still more than capable of winding back the clock. If she can do that here, she is every chance of securing another win and locking in a spot at Trestles.
The surfer Gilmore beat in her 2018 J-Bay triumph was Lakey Peterson, who repeated the dose in 2019 with yet another runner-up appearance at perhaps the best right-hand point break in the world. Her penchant for this wave should come as no surprise; Peterson grew up in Santa Barbara, where similar waves are aplenty, and she’s also been a consistent threat at the most similar wave to this on tour – Bells Beach. Peterson’s issue throughout the year, as it has been for much of her career, is actually winning; in eight events this year, she’s made the quarterfinals five times, advanced through to a semi on three occasions and competed in two finals, but is yet to break through and take out a tournament. Still, she’s done enough to be sitting in third place in the world rankings and is well-placed to make it to the WSL Finals, but after a number of close-run things this year and having finished second here in the last two editions of this event, Peterson will be eyeing this off as a great chance to finally claim the 10,000 points.
In contrast to all the aforementioned names, Caroline Marks is no chance of competing in the WSL Finals after missing the first half of the season, but she is more than capable of shaping who does finish in the top five. She hasn’t taken long to return to something resembling her best since returning to the CT, finishing third and fifth at the last two events. Goofy-footers haven’t historically had a great deal of success at this wave, but if anyone was going to threaten on their backhand, it would be Marks. She finished third here in 2019 and averaged a huge 14.45 points per heat in that contest, so she clearly has no problem with her back to the wave. Her powerful backhand hacks will make her a dangerous surfer at this event, and she is more than capable of earning what would essentially be a consolation victory nearing the end of a difficult year.
Sitting in sixth place in the world rankings and as last year’s runner-up for the world title, it might be a stretch to refer to Tatiana Weston-Webb as a roughie, but like Marks, she will need to defy history to win as a goofy-footer at J-Bay. Five Round of 16 exits in eight events this year suggest that she probably shouldn’t be considered as a major chance for the world title, but she does appear to be winding up at the right time of year. Four of those results came in the first five events of the season – surrounding a win in Portugal – but in two of the last three events, including at the Oi Rio Pro, she’s made the semi-finals. She’s hitting form when it matters most and making a late charge for the top five, and with the steely competitor in desperate need of another good result to keep her Finals hopes alive, it would be no surprise to see her advance deep into this contest.
So close is the women’s race to the WSL Finals, and with just 12 competitors taking to the water in each contest, it’s hard to rule out anyone in this field as a potential winner of the J-Bay Open. There are compelling arguments for most of them, but we’re sticking with someone who has won here before, and who’s best surfing will make her extremely hard to beat; Steph Gilmore. She won just a few weeks ago, is a past winner here, and has shown time after time after time in her career that she excels under pressure. Precariously placed just inside the top five with only two events to go, that’s exactly what she’ll get here.