Who Will Win the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach?

Three events into the season, the Championship Tour leaderboards are beginning to take shape, and with just two more until the mid-season cut there is already plenty on the line for a lot of surfers. And at the top end of the table, disappointing results at the MEO Rip Curl Pro Portugal to the two yellow jersey wearers have seen things tighten up to the point where less than 1,000 points separates first from second for both the men and the women, and the top three or four are all very tightly bunched. 

Next stop on the tour is the historic Rip Curl Pro at Bells Beach, the longest continuously running professional surfing event in the world and the first of two legs to take place in Australia. Bells is far from the heaviest wave on tour but is susceptible to massive south-west swells, and when it fires, watching the best in the world carve their way around this rumbling right-hand point break makes for beautiful viewing. Though it’s still a long-ish term forecast, the early signs are that a solid swell is set to arrive right around the opening of the event window on the 26th of March, and another mid-sized one a few days later. The big question is whether that will be accompanied by the north-west winds which makes this spot really pop. If it is, this contest will be compulsory viewing.

Women’s Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach

The women’s Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach has been a sanctuary for a select few surfers for more than a decade, with just six surfers sharing the spoils in the past 15 events harking back to 2005. Brazil’s Silvana Lima is the solitary one-time winner in that time, having saluted in 2009, while Steph Gilmore has won four times, Courtney Conlogue and Carissa Moore three times, and Sally Fitzgibbons and Tyler Wright two times. The first four of those haven’t made it past a Round of 16 between them this year – among those still left competing – though Wright is the two-time reigning champ and is coming off a runner-up finish in Portugal. She’ll be one of the women to beat as she attempts to go three from three, but more than likely we will have what has been relatively rare at this event over the past 15 years – a first-time winner. These are the surfers with the best chance of taking it out.

The Favourites

In a season which might offer her best opportunity for a world title since she last won in 2017, Tyler Wright didn’t start the year how she would have wanted with two consecutive early exits in Hawaii, but she bounced back with a second-place finish in Portugal to begin her ascent up the leaderboard. And as the winner of the last two Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach contests, she looks well placed to continue that climb. She has been a consistently strong performer at this break throughout her illustrious career, finishing second twice, third twice and fifth on three occasions in the seven events between 2011 and 2017. But it wasn’t until 2022, when Bells returned to the tour following a rare Covid-related hiatus, that Wright won for the first time in Torquay, and she backed that up the next year with another victory. In both those wins she’s been super impressive. In 2022, after a disappointing Opening Round heat she scored 16.93 or more in three of her last four heats. In 2023, again after a slow start when she lost a high-scoring Opening Round heat, she won most of her heats with ease including a 15.33-9.66 drubbing of Steph Gilmore in the semis, and then a 16.00-12.00 win over Molly Picklum in the final. She is probably the best surfer in the contest at this break, and coming off a runner-up performance in Portugal it will be tough to stop her from ringing the bell for the third time in as many years.

Wright is one of the last members of the previous generation still competing for world titles, and one of her main competitors at Bells Beach from the prodigiously talented group of young athletes taking the surfing world by storm is Molly Picklum. At the age of 21, Picklum is not just a star of the future; she is a star of today, and the yellow jersey she will be wearing as she paddles out at Bells is testament to that. She started the season like a house on fire with a win and a second place in Hawaii, and though she suffered an early exit in Portugal she will like her chances of bouncing back in the first Australian leg of the season. Her first appearance at Bells in 2022 didn’t go quite to plan with an early exit at the hands of Fitzgibbons, but last year was another story entirely. Though she was the beneficiary of a number of very tight heat wins – her biggest winning margin across her four heat wins was 0.77 – she still surfed really consistently, scoring at least 12 points in all but one of her heats. She has improved very rapidly over the past couple of years and enters this tournament in the best form of her young career, and it would be a surprise not to see her in the final few left competing for the Bell.

The Next Tier

Johanne Defay is one member of the Wright generation who looks likely to soon be overtaken by the up and coming crew, but she’s doing a pretty good well of avoiding it so far. After being a perennial top ten finisher but never able to crack into the top five throughout the first six years of her career, she finally broke that drought in 2021 and has since made it in two more of the last three years, maxing out at a career-best second last year. And the 30-year-old doesn’t appear to be going anywhere in 2024. After consecutive quarterfinal exits in Hawaii to start the year, she took down Wright in dominant fashion in the Supertubos final to secure her first win of the year, jumping into second place in the world rankings in the process. One break at which she has not been able to break out of the form which plagued the first half of her career and saw her consistently fall short at around the quarterfinals mark of many events, however, is Bells. She was eliminated at that stage in four of her first six Rip Curl Pros, and even in the past two, when she has been a legitimate world title contender, she hasn’t passed that stage. But there is no particular reason for the Frenchwoman to struggle on this wave. The sweeping walls of Bells will provide her with ample opportunity to show off her consistent and well-rounded surfing style, and this looks like a great opportunity for her to finally break into the top four at Bells Beach. 

Back to the youngins now, specifically Bettylou Sakura Johnson. At just 18 years of age she appears to have taken a big step forward in her third year on tour, having finished 19th and missed the first season in 2022 and then improving to 10th last year. But in 2024, she looks primed to finish a whole lot higher than that – at least if her start to the year is anything to go by. She’s undoubtedly advantaged at the start of the year courtesy of the fact that the first two events are her home ones, but a third and a second in those two contests is nothing to sneeze at and she followed it up with a decent third place in Portugal. The highest that she has ever finished at Bells Beach is fifth, but she’s only competed here and last year, when she achieved that result, she was pretty impressive, only going down in the quarters by 0.2 points to Picklum in a high scoring heat. She looks primed to put in her best showings at most events this season, and having already surfed well at Bells last year, she is capable of going deep at this year’s Rip Curl Pro. 

You may have noticed that all of the above names have one thing in common, aside from being among the best surfers in the world; they are all regular footers, and will be surfing their forehand at the peeling right-hander that is Bells Beach. Caroline Marks is the first exception in the list, but she will have to do something which hasn’t been achieved for a very long time to win this event; win on her backhand. The last time the women’s Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach was won by a goofy footer was when Frieda Zampa won way back in 1985 – there have been 30 editions of the event since then. But by no means does that mean that Marks can’t win here. For starters, she’s the reigning world champion, but she has also had plenty of success at this break – she just hasn’t won. The first time she competed in the contest she finished third and achieved the same result the year after, while last year she finished fifth. Even with that result though, she showed her wares on her backhand, putting up a 15.83 in the Opening Round of the event. Marks has had a solid albeit unspectacular start to the season, finishing fifth twice and third once, but she is more than capable of making her first finals appearance for the season in Torquay.

The Roughie

Having Caitlin Simmers as the roughie might be a little harsh, but such is the quality of the names above her. Having turned 18 just a few months ago, Simmers is already a legitimate world title contender. She finished fourth last year at the age of just 17, and importantly won two events last year. As is often the case with young surfers or indeed any sportspeople, consistency is a little elusive early on in a career and Simmers showed that last season with five Round of 16 exits accompanying those two wins. This year has been the same story to date as well; after winning at Pipeline, she was eliminated in the quarterfinals at Sunset Beach and then the Round of 16 in Portugal. But while that lack of consistency is far from ideal, it also highlights the fact that she is capable of winning any given event. Her first appearance at Bells Beach was last year and she didn’t surf at her best, finishing in ninth place, but there is no reason to think that she can’t surf this wave to a really high level. Simmers is a danger in any event that she enters, and while an early exit would be no great surprise, neither would it be to see her ringing the bell come the end of the contest.

Our Prediction

It’s time for a new winner at the Rip Curl Pro. With the tournament’s hiatus in 2020 and 2021, Tyler Wright is the only winner of this contest this decade, and she will be very tough to beat once again. But of all the challengers she will have, Picklum stands out as perhaps the best chance of them all. The number one ranked surfer entering the contest, she is coming off a disappointing result in Portugal, but before that she made the final at both events in Hawaii and was a finalist here last year. Picklum as arguably established herself as the woman to beat in this year’s world title race, and with a win at Bells Beach she can widen the advantage she has atop the world rankings.

Men’s Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach 

In complete contrast to the women’s contest, the men’s Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach has seen a new winner every year since 2015, when Mick Fanning won it for the second time in a row and third time in total. Ethan Ewing is the reigning champion and will again be one of the favourites to take it out in 2024, but by and large the guys with the best hopes of winning it this year have never won it before, meaning that trend is a good chance of continuing. It’s been a very tight year on the men’s side of the CT draw so far this season, with no one able to perform at all three contests and very little separation in the standings as a result. On that evidence, it will be a tight battle to the top five, meaning that every contest already carries plenty of weight. With the added component of history that Bells carries, that’s especially true at this event, and these are the best chances to ring that coveted bell at its conclusion.

The Favourites

Ethan Ewing has plenty going for him heading into this contest. Now well and truly established as one of the best surfers in the world, he finished second last year and fourth the season prior, and three events into the 2024 season is sitting behind only Griffin Colapinto in the world rankings. After a couple of decent but unspectacular results to start the season in Hawaii, he put in his best performance of the year at Supertubos, finishing second to jump five spots up the world rankings. Now, he heads to a break which suits his surfing to a tee, as he demonstrated last year. After finishing third here in 2022, Ewing went a couple better last year, putting up consistently high scores in every heat. In the six times that he paddled out he didn’t score less than 13.43, and averaged 14.42 en route to a victory at the same contest his mum won exactly 40 years earlier. Ewing’s sweeping manoeuvres and controlled but powerful style are perfectly suited to the wide open faces of Bells Beach, and will make him a huge chance of winning the event this year and likely for many years to come.

Alongside Ewing, one of the few other legitimate threats to win this contest who has already won it in the past is John John Florence. Despite winning the event in heaving conditions in 2019, John John hasn’t exactly excelled at this wave, failing to make it past the Round of 16 four of the nine times he’s surfed it. Admittedly, however, the bulk of those were earlier in his career, and his last three appearances have seen him finish first, third and fifth. Florence is perhaps the best surfer in heaving conditions on the tour, so the bigger this wave the better for him, and he showed as much in 2019 when heaving was probably an understatement when describing the contest’s waves. That looks like it may eventuate again this year, though even if it doesn’t he should be well placed. Last year he averaged 14.66 points per heat before falling short against Ryan Callinan in the semi-final, while the year prior he averaged an enormous 16.19 before going down in a high-scoring quarter-final against Filipe Toledo. He will no doubt prefer more size than most of his opponents at this event, but regardless of how big Bells gets, if he can repeat the kinds of scores he has managed the past few times he has competed at this event, he will be very difficult to beat. 

The Next Tier

Jack Robinson is right up there among the favourites to win the world title this season, and after an erratic start to the year, an inaugural win at Bells Beach would be the ideal way to get his season back on track. Not that it’s going all that badly; he’s sitting in fourth in the world rankings, but that’s with a win at Sunset Beach, and in the other two events he’s been eliminated in the Round of 32 and the Round of 16. He’s only competed twice at the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach and his best finish was a fifth place effort in 2022, before he was eliminated in the Round of 32 in a disappointing effort against local Xavier Huxtable last year. But one subpar heat doesn’t mean a whole lot. Robinson is one of the most well-rounded surfers on the tour and can do damage at most types of breaks, and like Florence he loves the heavy conditions. If a big swell comes through he will be particularly dangerous, but whatever the conditions Robinson is more than capable of winning this event.

Like Robinson, Griffin Colapinto has only advanced past the early stages of this contest once, but that occasion was just last year and he put on a show which belied his fifth round finish. Colapinto was one of the best surfers throughout the event, scoring 15.66 in the Opening Round, 17.00 in the Round of 32 and 16.33 in the Round of 16 before he fell just short in a tight quarterfinal against Ryan Callinan. He’s taken a significant step forward over the past year or two, finishing third last season in what was easily the best of his career, and after winning at Supertubos a couple of weeks ago he will paddle out in the yellow jersey at Bells. Now firmly established as one of the best in the world, Colapinto is particularly dangerous on the raft of right-handers riddled across the Championship Tour schedule, of which Bells, of course, is one. He showed as much last year, and on the back of a victory at his last contest, it would be no great surprise to see him win a second successive tournament.

While most of the above surfers have enjoyed some decent results at Bells Beach, for Gabriel Medina it’s consistently been a break at which he hasn’t had nearly the level of success that he has elsewhere. In his first seven appearances at the contest he made it past the Round of 16 just once, and on that occasion he was eliminated in the quarterfinals. The three times he has competed here since he’s had a slightly better run of results, but his best finish is still just a third place and last year he was again eliminated in the Round of 16. Surfing his backhand at this peeling right-hander, it’s certainly not his forte, but while the results may not have been ideal he has still surfed really well here at times. Last year was a bit of an exception but so was the entire year overall for him, and in the two years prior to that he was really good, averaging 13.96 per heat in 2018 en route to the semis and a huge 15.54 in four heats the year after before being eliminated in a tight, low-scoring quarterfinal. Having not made the final at Bells in ten attempts he would appear to be up against it, but had things gone his way he could easily have had better results here. Medina is still searching for his best form, but it would take a brave person to write him off.

The Roughie

Jake Marshall is showing signs that he is going to be a whole lot more competitive this season than he ever has in the past on the Championship Tour. Having only made it past the Round of 16 once in a year and a half on the tour entering the season and now 25 years old, there weren’t exactly huge expectations on his shoulders, but he has had a really solid start to the year, even if the results don’t necessarily look like it. He racked up a pair of ninth place finishes in Hawaii, before making his second quarterfinal in Supertubos where he lost to Crosby Colapinto. He showed something at that event. His most notable win en route to that quarterfinal came in the Round of 16 when he knocked off John John Florence, demonstrating plenty of power and an ability to find the pocket over and over and over. On the long walls of Bells, consistently finding those pockets is the key to a big score, and while he has never had a good result here, he appears to have improved a lot this year and should be suited to the wave. Having never made it past the quarters a win would require a big step-up in performance, but as far as roughies go he looks like someone who could make some waves at this event.

Our Prediction

Without wanting to just tip the guy who won last year, I’m going to do it anyway. Ethan Ewing is just so perfectly suited to this wave whatever size it is, with the wide open walls enabling him to showcase his smooth but powerful forehand perfectly. Casting aside 2017 when he was only 19 and didn’t finish higher than 13th in ten events, he has finished third and first in his two efforts here and put up consistently high scores in that time. Ewing is as reliable as nearly anyone on the tour and will likely put up pretty high numbers in every heat he paddles out in, and for him to be beaten it will likely take a couple of very high scoring waves from his opponent. Having already surfed so well here in the past and now as capable a pro surfer as he has ever been, he can make a second final in as many events and ring the bell for the second consecutive year.

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