In thumping six- to eight-foot conditions, the steep walls at Jeffreys Bay, South Africa, served as the perfect canvas for defending world champ Mick Fanning to carve up longtime friend and occasional rival Joel Parkinson. Putting in a commanding performance in the final of the JBay Open, there was little question who the point master was this time around.
After a much heralded run of upsets in the early rounds of the event, including the surprise eliminations of an out-of-sorts Kelly Slater and a very in sorts Jordy Smith, many were quick to sing of a changing of the guard. However, as two-time victor Fanning paddled out for the final against Parko, who first won here in 1999, it felt like a movie we'd all seen before, proving true the old adage that "the more things change, the more they stay the same."
Across a marathon final day, made much harder by a strong current and no jet ski assistance (due to the area's marine sanctuary status), Fanning surfed four times and Parkinson three as they tore their way to the end game.
"That's why we train, for big days like today," said a joyous Fanning after the win. "You kick out of a wave and see these big lines pouring in, and somehow find some more energy to do it all again."
"That was as good as I've ever seen it," said Parkinson, of the spectacular J-Bay conditions, still clearly smarting from Fanning's opening volley of a nine-point wave, closely followed by an eight-pointer, which left Parkinson needing a combination of scores just 15 minutes into the final. Despite Parkinson looking the man to beat for the majority of the day, Fanning turned the script on its head with his opening barrage and, although the mid-section of the 45-minute final was a riveting barrel-riding shootout, a Fanning victory seemed assured from the halfway mark on.
Claiming his third J-Bay title and second event for the year, matching Gabriel Medina and Michel Bourez for most 2014 victories, Fanning has firmly put his name back into the title conversation. He now sits third in the ratings, while Parkinson, the most-consistent performer of the season, now sits second. Michel Bourez and Slater both slipped three places, to fifth and sixth, respectively.
In the semifinals old sparring partners Fanning and Parkinson made shore work of fellow Aussies Owen Wright and Matt Wilkinson, who impressed onlookers with their powerful backside artillery. Wilkinson in particular seemed to step up his game to match the huge waves. In the 30 years since Occy last took out the J-Bay title no right-foot-forward surfer has come close, but the two young New South Welshmen gave it their all, only to be foiled by two men who could easily be considered the best pointbreak surfers in the world.
"We're lucky we grew up on the Gold Coast," said Fanning. "These conditions are a dream for us."
Another man who might be considered in that elite pointbreak group also showcased his skills to a stunned audience. Tom Curren stylishly thread a couple of long barrels and locked in a perfect 10-point wave en route to demolishing Mark Occhilupo in an expression session dubbed the Heritage Series. This left the online purists screaming for the good old days, and plenty of hypotheticals as to how many rounds of competition the pair could advance through in the modern day. (Answers varied from a few -- Occy at a beachbreak -- to a lot -- Curren at JBay.)
Other players in South Africa included Taj Burrow, who kept his successful run of near misses going, but tightened his grip on fourth place on the rankings. With plenty of room for growth, if he can land a couple of keepers he has an outside shot at contending. The biggest movers were the semifinalists, Wilkinson leaping to 21st and hopefully staving off relegation to the qualifying series, while Wright jumped up four places to 11th and is starting show signs of regaining the magic he possessed in 2012. For the vets Fred Patacchia and CJ Hobgood, their good finishes bought them some breathing space in the battle to requalify.
Gabriel Medina retains the No. 1 position and will be licking his lips at the thought of Teahupoo coming up next. We're six events down in an 11-event schedule, and every surfer in the top seven on the ratings should imagine they have a chance of taking the world title. The ASP World Tour reconvenes in Tahiti in four weeks time. The Billabong Pro will run at the feared left-hand reef break of Teahupoo from August 15-26. Things are just starting to get interesting.