Let the surfers surf. That should be the mantra for the 2012 ASP World Tour season. Kelly Slater, Joel Parkinson, Jordy Smith, Julian Wilson, Gabriel Medina, John John Florence -- the list goes on. The level of talent is unprecedented. Storylines rain in abundance.
The last thing we want to hear about this year is the ASP board or the judges. It's not about them. The year 2012 needs to be about what happens in the water. Gone is the mid-year cutoff. Rookies get a whole year to figure things out. Shelved are two out of three urban surf venues. Back is Cloudbreak. Santa Cruz's Steamer Lane has been rightly added as well. One gets the feeling that if the ocean cooperates, it's going to be a good year.
So, who to watch? Ten months from now, who's going to carry the distinction of being the best surfer in the world? Here are 15 of the favorites:
1. Kelly Slater, United States
The question that begins every season lingers: Will he go for another title? With 11 world titles and just about every record in professional surfing, he has nothing left to prove, so it's about finding some kind of motivation for him. If Gabriel Medina or Kolohe Andino should win at Snapper, and Slater posts a respectable result, the fire may burn anew.
2. Joel Parkinson, Australia
Parko says he sleeps like a baby these days, and that the elusive world title doesn't bother him. He's also playing coy. The man has to wake up in cold sweats, haunted. His friends Mick Fanning and Andy Irons got theirs, but, like Taj Burrow, he may be forever remembered as a bridesmaid. However, this could be his year; he did finish 2011 rated second in the water. No slouch. And he is due.
3. Owen Wright, Australia
After a great year last year, Wright felt the pressure of being in the hunt with Slater, but can the lanky 22-year-old goofy-footer from Lennox Head answer the challenge? No doubt he'll be ready; with his sister winning Rookie of the Year honors last year and a younger brother coming up, he can't get away from surfing. He proved in '11 at the Billabong Pro Tahiti that he can ride the tube like nobody's business, so the addition of the Volcom Fiji Pro is a positive for him. Plus, he's a wickedly smart competitor. He'll figure into the mix at the end of the year.
4. Taj Burrow, Australia
Burrow used to own the air, but that's changed. A streaky surfer by nature, he has moments of brilliance, and has at times put together what could have been world title runs. But as successful as he can be, he's also prone to self-destruct with strings of not-so-good results. His key will be consistency -- quarterfinals or better all year.
5. Adriano De Souza, Brazil
The surfer formerly known as Brazil's best chance for a world title, De Souza's only 25 years old, but he's the veteran South American on tour, and sad to say, is starting to show every bit of his age. Medina and Miguel Pupo have taken the planet by storm, and while De Souza will still factor into some events this year, his best chance to be Brazil's best may be behind him.
6. Michel Bourez, Tahiti A new father this year, he'll have more motivation than ever to apply his power game. As of late he's been in Tahiti with the family, surfing good waves, training, and undoubtedly eating healthy. Hard to see him contending for a title, but there's no reason why he won't hang in the Top 10.
7. Jordy Smith, South Africa
There hasn't been a lot of press about Smith recently, so hard to figure he's feeling much pressure right now ... and that's dangerous. The rib injury at Teahupoo last year did him in, but he's been living in Cape Town and surfing its chilly waves. Seventh in the world is too low for a man of his caliber. If he can remain injury free and focused, 2012 could be the first time a South African surfer wins a world title since Martin Potter in 1989.
8. Josh Kerr, Australia
If Kerr's not careful he may end up in the world title hunt this year. Labeled an "air guy," he's anything but. Dude charges, and charges hard. He's perhaps the most well-rounded surfer in the top 10, but for some reason he always seems like a dark horse. Maybe it's because he doesn't have a big-money sponsor on his board (he rides for Rusty), or maybe it's his go-for-broke mentality (pre-Dane Reynolds), either way, Kerr rips to the rhythm of his own surfing, and the tour could use more of that.
9. Julian Wilson, Australia
Wilson admits that he learned a lot last year, that changing sponsors at the start of this rookie year kind of rattled him. But he's in a good place now. He has his brothers around him as support staff, he's evolved into the poster child for Nike Surfing, and the second half of the season saw him fly up the ratings. He can go toe-to-toe with Wright, Smith, and the like, and we saw what he did to Parko. He has his game face on this year, and while he may be another season away from a real world title shot, he's going to be fierce this year.
10. Alejo Muniz, Brazil
At 5-foot-8 and 150 pounds, Muniz epitomizes the small, compact pro surfer image. Agile and light on his feet, he's hard to beat in small surf, and can even hang in size with his unexpectedly powerful turns. Last year was a breakout year for him, so sustainability will be the thing to look for.
11. Mick Fanning, Australia
Equipment issues, injury issues -- the Year of "White Lightning," 2011 was not. But Fanning knows a thing or two about coming back from the brink. Judging by his recent Instagram post, his surfboard room is well stocked. Judging by the video that his sponsor Reef just posted on YouTube, he's surfing faster and sharper than ever. A finals appearance at the recent Breaka Pro is also a good indication that his head's back in the game.
12. Gabriel Medina, Brazil
Kolohe Andino calls him one of the most talented surfers in the world. We agree. He made it on tour last year at the midway mark, proceeded to win two events and finish the season rated 12th. Still a teenager, a full year of maturation will do him right, but yes, someday soon Brazil will have its first world title, and it will come in the form of Gabriel Medina.
13. John John Florence, Hawaii
The youngest Triple Crown champion ever. As they say, "John John's gnarly." And he's not just a Pipe surfer. He gets it done in small waves with a complete arsenal of air maneuvers and tack-sharp turns. Besides Fred Patacchia, he's the only Hawaiian on tour.
14. Kolohe Andino, United States
Some call him "Young Money" because he's got the sponsorship deals on lock. Nike, Target, Red Bull, Oakley, he's the face of corporate America's love affair with toe-headed California beach kids. But he's also one of the nicest, more level-headed and humble teenagers you'll to meet.
15. Yadin Nicol, Australia
Back from a devastating broken ankle, Nicol's time on tour has finally come. It hasn't been the easiest road for him, and the last time we saw him in the spotlight, Kelly Slater was surfing circles around him at the U.S. Open, but Nicol's been able to be good-humored about everything so far, which always helps.