A new wave: the return to the golden age is coming for Australian men’s surfing | Surfing
AAgainst a backdrop of successive eras of champions, the past few years have been a fallow season for Australian men’s surfing. For decades they have been a dominant force in the World Surf League and the competitions that preceded it. The reign of Mark Richards, known simply as MR, in the early 1980s led to Tom Carroll’s two world titles. A golden era followed in the 1990s and early 2000s, when Mark Occhilupo, Mick Fanning and Joel Parkinson clashed with American superstars Kelly Slater and Andy Irons.
But since Fanning won his third and final world title in 2013, no Australian has finished the season atop the standings. It was the era of Brazilians and Hawaiians. The Australians are always there – Julian Wilson came third in 2017 and second in 2018, while Owen Wright was a constant presence and won bronze at the Olympics last year. But in 2019, only Wright flew the Australian flag in the year-end top 10, in ninth place. Last year, Morgan Cibilic was the only Australian to qualify for the WSL Finals, a new format for determining the title involving the top five ranked surfers (Cibilic qualified fifth and did not make it past the round of ‘opening).
In 2022, the Australians are back in force. A new golden era of Australian men’s surfing is coming.
As the competition window for the final event of the regular season opened this week at the Tahiti Pro, four Australians are in the top 10. Connor O’Leary and Callum Robson are ninth and seventh respectively, while Ethan Ewing is third and Jack Robinson in second place. Three members of this quartet are under 24 years old.
Robinson, a prodigy who took the surfing world by storm in his early teens, was the top surfer for much of the year. In the last six events, Robinson has won two (her home competition in Margaret River and at G-Land Pro in Indonesia), finished second in the most recent (at J-Bay in South Africa) and has reached the semi-final, quarter-final and third round respectively in the other three. Only Brazilian Filipe Toledo is above Robinson in the standings.
The West Australian is renowned for his effortless hit; he conquered waves of consequence since childhood. Robinson is the big favorite for the Tahiti Pro, who stood on the punishing break at Teahupo’o, which in its day is one of the gnarliest waves in the world (and perhaps the place the heaviest of the WSL calendar).
But the most impressive thing about Robinson’s second season on tour was his performances on smaller waves. Although Robinson’s aerial game was always strong, the surfer elevated his punishing turns on the blank canvases of J-Bay. It is this improvement, more than his core-barrel cunning, that will surely see him become Australia’s next world champion – whether in the upcoming WSL Finals in Trestles, California in September or in years to come.
Even in-form Robinson couldn’t stop compatriot Ewing, a 23-year-old from North Stradbroke, in the recent J-Bay final. Ewing comes from surfing royalty; his late mother, Helen Ewing, won at Bells Beach in 1983. But the pressure of expectations and a series of injuries hampered her rise. There was no doubting Ewing’s raw talent, however. For those paying close attention, it was obvious the Queenslander would join the world’s best before too long.
In a recent New Yorker profile of Kai Lenny, one of the best big wave surfers in the world, Lenny said, “I want to surf just like Ethan Ewing.” The magazine added: “Ewing was not one of the best [Championship Tour] names. He had never won a CT contest. But Kai was right. person at sunset [a wave in Hawaii] looked better.
That long-awaited first WSL win came last month. After appearing in three semi-finals during the season, Ewing finally won the J-Bay final. Despite Robinson opening with a wave of 8.83, Ewing kept his composure to post a wave of 9.13. Combined with a strong second-best wave, Ewing held off world No. 2. Australia against Australia at the best table in sport.
Robson, meanwhile, has been busy juggling his successful rookie season with efforts to support his home community on the flood-hit New South Wales Far North Coast. The flood hit the 21-year-old’s home; at one point he posted a photo of a floating container floating near the roof of his family home. Along with crowdfunding to support the community (raffling off a surfing lesson with himself, among other prizes), Robson set the WSL on fire – finishing second to Bells and advancing to the quarter-finals in El Salvador and in Brazil.
There are no certainties in surfing, a sport dependent on the whims of the ocean and the scores of points delivered by mercurial judges. The difference between success and failure can be thin and unpredictable; a barrel that closes to deny a perfect 10, a gravity-defying air that peels off on landing. A lot stands between this new generation of Australian surf stars and a WSL world title – not least current world number 1 Toledo. The Brazilian has never won the title himself and is eager to follow in the footsteps of fellow countrymen Gabriel Medina, Adriano De Souza and Italo Ferreira (who have won five of the last seven WSL titles between them).
Still, all the signs are promising. There have been a few fallow WSL campaigns for the Australian men (the women have had no such problems, winning three of the last five titles). Suddenly a new generation of Australian male surfers arrived on the scene. They seem hungry for a return to the mean: Australia as the dominant force in elite surfing.