• Nick Abramo-Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Florence survives to advance at Pipe


COURTESY WSL / CESTARI

Hawaii’s John John Florence survived a close call to advance to the fourth round at the Billabong Pipe Masters on Sunday.

Serious mini dramas raged Sunday at the Billabong Pipe Masters as the top two world-title contenders somehow squirmed out of deep, deep trouble.

One fan of John John Florence out of the thousands at packed Ehukai Beach felt sick to her stomach when Australia’s Ethan Ewing caught a Backdoor barrel with 1:15 left in his third-round heat against Florence. All Ewing needed was a 4.67 for the unthinkable upset.

Could Haleiwa’s Florence, the World Surf League’s front-runner for the season-long points title, get upset this early at his home break and give away his world championship?

When Ewing’s score was announced, though, cheers erupted. It was a 4.60. Not good enough, and his 10.87 to 10.80 loss guaranteed Florence a spot in the non-elimination fourth round.

“I felt like I didn’t have a ton of waves and not really any good ones, so we were kind of battling for these little scores,” a relieved Florence said. “I don’t like winning heats like that. It was super close, but it was definitely fun. It’s cool to be surfing at home with all this support and all this energy. We all thought it was going to be a little bigger (than the 4- to 6-foot waves) today. I’m closer to the title, but still a long ways off and still have a lot of work to do.

“I was worried for sure. Whatever happens is going to happen and I’m prepared for that, prepared to win or lose or whatever happens. Close heats like that are super scary of course, but you can’t control it. (While waiting for Ewing’s score), I was just kind of like, ‘Hey what’s going to happen here?’ ”

Earlier in the heat, Ewing nearly took a lead, needing a 6.24, but only getting a 6.20.

Florence’s closest competitor to surfing’s throne, No. 2 Gabriel Medina of Brazil, scratched back to win his heat after an agonizingly slow start against veteran Josh Kerr of Australia, who’s retirement became official after his 10.00 to 9.83 loss.

Down 9.83 to 5.10, Medina got a bit closer with a 6.57 for a classic Pipe barrel plus a finishing 360, and then he grabbed the lead for good with a 3.43 on two vertical Backdoor hacks with five minutes left. Kerr made it interesting, taking off on a wave with 15 seconds to go and needing just a 4.1, but he wiped out.

“Hopefully I get some good waves and keep on going,” Medina said about the day of reckoning today, when the king of the surf world for 2017 will be determined, conditions permitting. “I’m happy to be in it. That’s what I’m surfing for … for the title. Hopefully tomorrow (Monday) will be a happy day.”

Florence can clinch his second straight world crown with a win at the Pipe Masters. The only ways Medina can regain the big prize that he won in 2014 is with a Pipe victory as long as Florence doesn’t make the final or if he places second and Florence is eliminated in the fifth round.

Sunday started with four surfers in the chase for the world championship, but No. 3 Jordy Smith of Australia and No. 4 Julian Wilson were eliminated from contention. Wilson, however, is still alive for a second Pipe Masters title and advanced to the fourth round.

Smith ran into the greatest competitive surfer of all-time, 11-time world champ Kelly Slater, and lost 11.87 to 7.87. Slater is one of 12 surfers remaining who can claim the Pipe Masters title. He’s done it seven times before, across three decades. The Vans Triple Crown of Surfing champion (the top surfer in the three season-ending Hawaii events combined — the Hawaiian Pro, the Vans World Cup and the Pipe Masters) also will be determined when competition resumes. With only one day left, that race is wide open.

Florence survives to advance at Pipe

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