Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Surfing [Print without images]

Thursday, August 18, 2011
Updated: August 30, 1:20 AM ET
Billabong Pro Tahiti Preview

By Jake Howard
ESPN Action Sports

Kelly Slater's three victories at the Billabong Pro Tahiti make him a clear front-runner; could this be where he starts making the push for an 11th world title?

Preview Day 1 Day 2 Tow-in Session Day 3 Final

Can the Billabong Pro Tahiti save the Dream Tour? The short answer is yes and no.

It's been a tumultuous year for the ASP World Tour. Criticism about its decision to hold events in urban environments such as Rio, San Francisco and New York caught online fire. Some have more than alluded that the "Dream Tour," which originally went by the mantra of "best surfers in the best waves," has reverted back to the stadium-style contests of old. In other words, butts in the sand are more important than butt-drags in the barrel. But if there is one bright spot on the 2011 calendar it is Teahupoo: fearsome and majestic in all its glassy, blue, tropical glory.

And now, with the waiting period running from Aug. 20-31, Tahiti's infamous left-hander looks to flip the script. The forecast is beyond promising; we could be due for some of the best waves the embattled ASP World Tour has seen in a couple years.

"The end of next week is looking even better with potential for a very solid SSW swell on Thursday and Friday, [Aug.] 25-26 [and even potentially starting to build as early as Wednesday afternoon]," reported Surfline.com, the official forecaster of the Billabong Pro. "We'll be watching for a strong storm to develop to the southeast of New Zealand in a few days and, if it behaves as forecast, solid double to triple overhead+++ surf looks possible for the end of next week. It's a bit far out to call wind and conditions with concrete accuracy, but there are no glaring red flags for bad conditions late next week at this point."

That's the good news. The bad news is that earlier this week Dane Reynolds pulled out of the event for an undisclosed reason. Then just yesterday Bobby Martinez, a two-time winner at Teahupoo and considered to be one of the best goofy-footers in the world, announced not so subtly that he was withdrawing.

"I am not going to do the Chopes event. I love Tahiti and that wave; I just don't like being there for an event with everyone there," Martinez said in an interview on Channel Islands Surfboards' blog, one of his few remaining sponsors. Then referring to the looming midseason cutoff and that we won't be seeing him on tour anymore, Martinez added, "The whole thought of it just makes me want to go surfing by myself and just get away from it all. If I stay around that scene, well, let's just say it won't be pretty."

Damien Hobgood knows what success means at Teahupoo, and in the days leading up the contest he has been a mainstay in the lineup.

So, what does that leave us? Well, there's always Kelly Slater. After a command performance at the U.S. Open, it would appear the 10-time world champ has the competitive juices flowing. He's the only person to post a perfect 20-point heat score at Teahupoo. He has won the Tahiti event three times, and if the waves are even half as good as Surfline's claiming, he could very well add a fourth.

But after Slater the list is pretty short. Ratings front-runner Joel Parkinson has historically struggled in Tahiti, as have his Aussie brethren, Taj Burrow and Mick Fanning. That's not to say they will again this year, but to date none of them have won the event.

What about Jordy Smith? Surely the South African's big frame can match power with power? Nope ... no air sections. Supermen don't go over well in the Tahitian shallows. He'll be facing Raoni Monterio and trials winner Ricardo Dos Santos in Round 1, and given how much time Dos Santos has been spending in the water there, the smart money is uncharacteristically on the wild card.

OK, what about young Australians Julian Wilson, Matty Wilkinson and Owen Wright? For as talented as they are, Wilson and Wilko still need a couple of Tahitian seasons under their belts. Even the top guys can be intimidated by the wave, and experience plays a vital role. Wright may have a leg up, as he has dedicated large blocks of his youth to charging Pipeline and is probably the best tube rider out of the group.

Then there's the locals. This could be Michel Bourez's moment to shine. In his two years on tour he has yet to post a solid result at his home break, but he hasn't finished lower than ninth all year and right now sits ranked seventh in the world.

Cory Lopez is looking to officially jump back on the world tour with a result in Tahiti.

"Teahupoo is why I wanted to be on the tour," Bourez said in a recent interview with Waves Magazine in Australia. Bourez and his girlfriend are also preparing to welcome their first child into the world, which always adds to the inspiration. "Before I knew what I had to do, but now I have to be ready for a baby."

Wild-card Heiarii Williams has proven himself a threat time and again, and he loves nothing more than big days at his home break. Teahupoo is situated practically right out his backdoor, and for years now he has been on every good swell there. He plays second fiddle to no one when it's sizable.

But somehow it always comes back to Florida and its slew of goofy-footers. With Reynolds out, Cory Lopez is in, which is a dangerous thing for everybody on his side of the draw. Besides Laird Hamilton's "Millennium Wave," Lopez, who won the contest in 2001, holds the distinction of bagging one of Teahupoo's most historic waves, and should the swell push into that triple overhead range, few (excluding the Tahitians) will rush over the ledge like Lopez. Then there's the brothers Hobgood. Riding on their forehand, CJ and Damien take the approach of "the bigger the better." Damien finished runner-up in 2010 (behind the late Andy Irons) and won in 2007, while CJ won in 2004.

All told, the Billabong Pro Tahiti is shaping up to be the most exciting, most jaw-dropping event of the 2011 campaign. And since the Dream Tour has always been about scoring perfect surf, the personalities that are absent will be missed, but not that much. After all, it's the wave that's really the star of the show.

Billabong Pro Tahiti Round 1 Match-ups:
Heat 1: Adrian Buchan (AUS), Chris Davidson (AUS), Cory Lopez (USA)
Heat 2: Taj Burrow (AUS), Matt Wilkinson (AUS), Fredrick Patacchia (HAW)
Heat 3: Jeremy Flores (FRA), Jadson Andre (BRA), Gabe Kling (USA)
Heat 4: Mick Fanning (AUS), Tiago Pires (PRT), Bobby Martinez (USA)
Heat 5: Jordy Smith (ZAF), Raoni Monteiro (BRA), Ricardo dos Santos (BRA)
Heat 6: Kelly Slater (USA), Daniel Ross (AUS), Heiarii Williams (PYF)
Heat 7: Owen Wright (AUS), Heitor Alves (BRA), Kai Otton (AUS)
Heat 8: Joel Parkinson (AUS), C.J. Hobgood (USA), Adam Melling (AUS)
Heat 9: Bede Durbidge (AUS), Alejo Muniz (BRA), Taylor Knox (USA)
Heat 10: Damien Hobgood (USA), Patrick Gudauskas (USA), Brett Simpson (USA)
Heat 11: Michel Bourez (PYF), Kieren Perrow (AUS), Dusty Payne (HAW)
Heat 12: Adriano de Souza (BRA), Julian Wilson (AUS), Josh Kerr (AUS)