By Lincoln Feast
(Reuters) – Filipe Toledo heads into the World Surf League Finals as favourite to win what would be a popular first world title and one which would extend the dominance of the “Brazilian Storm” in men’s surfing.
Toledo won two legs of the 10-stop World Championship Tour this year, qualifying first for the second edition of the winner-takes-all Finals for the top five surfers on the circuit.
The one-day event will be held in the best conditions between Sept. 8-16 at Lower Trestles, a cobblestone pointbreak in Southern California that produces high-performance waves that seldom get much above head-height.
That is right in the sweet spot for 27-year-old Toledo, originally from Ubatuba near Sao Paulo but now living close to the Finals venue.
“He is without a doubt the best small wave surfer we’ve ever seen … and Lowers – there isn’t a wave that suits someone better than it suits him,” said Barton Lynch, the 1988 world champion.
While Toledo’s capabilities in the marquee heavy-water locations of Pipeline and Teahupo’o have sometimes drawn criticism, his aerial wizardry, razor-sharp turns and camaraderie with his peers has made him a fan favourite.
Toledo is a leading figure in a tight-knit pack known as the ‘Brazilian Storm’, who have between them won all but two of the men’s world titles since 2014, as well as taking the first men’s Olympic gold medal through Italo Ferreira.
The live-wire Ferreira will be a threat in the Finals after qualifying in fourth seed, but two other top contenders – Hawaii’s two-time champ John John Florence (knee) and Brazil’s reining world champ Gabriel Medina (mental health, knee) – missed much of the tour.
That has opened up opportunities for Australians Jack Robinson and Ethan Ewing, as well as Japan’s Olympic silver medallist Kanoa Igarashi in the race for the title.
Carissa Moore, the reigning women’s Olympic champion, will be looking to add to her five world titles and is also a hot favourite, having won the title last year in the same format at the same venue.
“Her surfing is just on incredible levels of power, flow, speed – those judging criteria,” Lynch said of the 30-year-old Hawaiian.
“She can be vulnerable under pressure for sure, but that best-of-three format helps her.”
Top seeds progress directly to a best-of-three heat final, with the other four seeds going head-to-head for a chance to join them in the title decider.
Australia’s seven-times world champion Stephanie Gilmore
will take on Brisa Hennessy from Costa Rica in the first battle, with the winner to face Brazil’s Tatiana Weston-Webb.
France’s Johanne Defay is the second seed after her best year on tour but the fiercely competitive Weston-Webb poses perhaps the greatest threat to Moore after a narrow loss in last year’s final.
“I just feel like because I’ve been there and I’ve worked with that amount of pressure, it’s almost like less pressure, so I’m just really looking forward to surfing,” Weston-Webb recently told the WSL.
(Reporting by Lincoln Feast in Sydney; Editing by Peter Rutherford)