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The WSL 2021 Finals Women’s Preview

So here we are. The season proper of the Championship Tour has come to a close, nine months after it restarted in Hawaii to kick off a season which was destined to face plenty of hurdles. And those hurdles certainly weren’t avoided – numerous events were replaced or cancelled completely, including the historic Rip Curl Pro at Bells Beach and perhaps most spectacularly the Outerknown Tahiti Pro, which was initially scheduled to be the final event of the regular season before being shelved just days before it started. But rather than clattering into them, the WSL managed to clear each and every hurdle they faced. It wasn’t always perfect, but they got there, and the world crown is waiting for whoever can put it all together in one historic day at Trestles.

To preview both the men’s and women’s event, we’ll look at each of the five ‘Matches’ which will take place on both sides of the draw – take a look here for a refresher on how it will all work. This will be something of a speculative preview format given we’ve never had a season determined this way before, but here we go.

Match 1 – Stephanie Gilmore (4) vs Johanne Defay (5)

These two were literally inseparable over the course of the season, finishing on exactly the same number of points (32,035) after the seven events, with Gilmore being awarded the number four seed courtesy of having a higher average heat score, but it makes no material difference. They’ll face off in Match 1 regardless, with Gilmore looking to become world champion for an incredible eighth time – a number which would see her become the outright most successful female surfer in history and second only to Kelly Slater for total world titles. Defay, meanwhile, has never been closer than this to winning one – her best ever finish is fifth, a result which incidentally came in the same year (2018) that Gilmore last won a world title.

Both head into the finals in winning form having each taken out one of the last two events, Gilmore winning the Corona Open Mexico just a couple of weeks ago and Defay the Surf Ranch Pro just before that. The two have mostly managed to avoid one another in head-to-head matchups in the last couple of years, with 2018 the last time they went up against one another. Gilmore won on that occasion as she had earlier in that same year, and also beat Defay the only other time the two have met one-on-one on the CT. 

Defay is probably surfing as well as she ever has and Gilmore, while still surfing extremely well, is not as consistently at the level she once was, so those results don’t necessarily mean all that much. Nonetheless, Gilmore is the seven-time world champion. She’s been here before, she’s in form and she’s one of the greatest surfers to grace the water, and will deservedly head into this matchup as the favourite to advance through to the next round.

Match 2 – Sally Fitzgibbons (3) vs Winner of Match 1

There are few surfers in the world without a world title to their name who deserve one more than Sally Fitzgibbons. The 30-year-old has finished seasons in second and third on three occasions each, and another in each of fourth, fifth, sixth and eighth. Most of her best results came earlier in her career, but she’s still been a consistent presence in recent years and has hit some serious form in the back half of this year, finishing with a win at Rottnest and third place finishes at both the Surf Ranch and Barra de la Cruz.

Those results helped to propel her up the rankings after she found herself outside the top five with just three events to go, enabling her to bypass Match 1. Whoever she has to face in Match 2, however, will give her a run for her money. If she gets Defay I think she might just be too strong; Gilmore will be more difficult. The seven-time world champ has beaten Fitzgibbons each of the last three times they’ve met at CT level, and an all-Aussie matchup between those two would make for compelling viewing. 

Match 3 – Tatiana Weston-Webb (2) vs Winner of Match 2

Awaiting the winner of Match 3 is the only Brazilian left in the women’s bracket, powerful goofy-footer Tatiana Weston-Webb. This is the highest Weston-Webb has ever finished in the world rankings, her previous best being fourth, and it puts her in a very good position to claim her first ever world title. She heads into the event in decent form having finished 3rd and 5th at her last two events, though it was two potential opponents in Defay and Gilmore respectively who knocked her out of those contests.

She has, however, also beaten Gilmore on one occasion this season, and disposed of Fitzgibbons the only time they met. These mixed results are indicative of just how tight the women’s bracket is; the five women who will compete at Trestles were all well clear of sixth place, but just over 2,600 points separate Weston-Webb in second from Defay in fifth, while Carissa Moore is a little over 3,000 further ahead. As a result, Weston-Webb probably doesn’t have much of a preference in terms of who she gets in this heat; she’s capable of beating all of them, but equally each of them is more than good enough to send her packing.

Title Match – Carissa Moore (1) vs Winner of Match 3

Given she made the semi-finals in literally every event this year, it’s somewhat surprising that Moore didn’t finish further ahead as the number one seed, but just one win from those seven semis will do that. That habit of falling just short hasn’t been too much of an impediment in her world title hunt so far this season, but she’ll be desperate to break the hoodoo here. Interestingly, in her last five events – in which she came 3rd four times and 2nd once – the opponents who beat her read as follows: Weston-Webb, Gilmore, Defay, Defay, Gilmore. 

That doesn’t necessarily bode well for Moore as she chases a fifth world title, but she will most likely have experience and fresh legs on her side this time. Three of her potential opponents have the monkey of having never won a world title perched on their backs, while Moore has been here plenty of times before. If she faces Gilmore, however, that experience advantage will be null and void – in fact it will swing in the other direction.

So – who’s going to win?

To be honest, this one is anybody’s game. Not a lot has separated these five surfers all year, either in terms of their overall results or their individual matchups against one another, and Moore, who has been the standout, has struggled to win and has lost numerous times at the hands of her potential opponents at Trestles. Despite that, however, the fact that she has been the best, most consistent surfer this year and has the significant advantage of only having to win the best-of-three Title Match means that she will head in as the deserved favourite – but it won’t be by a large margin.

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