The Plight of the Bubble Boys: Making the Tour is One Thing, Staying On is Another

Matt Rott

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Updated 120d ago

The world tour’s competitive year is finally over, with the off-season break in effect until the end of February and the beginning of the 2017 season. And now that the spray has had a chance to settle and we've met our seven new rookies, it's time to talk challenges. The challenge of first securing your spot on the Dream Tour, and then working even harder to keep it.

How these new youngsters will fare on tour is yet to be seen, but it’s no secret that rookie years can come with a sharp learning curve. Of last year’s seven rookies, only three managed to requalify through the world tour (Caio Ibelli, the 2016 rookie of the year; Conner Coffin; and Kanoa Igarashi). Jack Freestone managed to requalify via a last-minute QS charge in Hawaii, and Alex Ribeiro, Davey Cathels and Ryan Callinan all got sent back to the minors, where they will have to slug it out for another year to try to earn their way back on tour.

Jack Freestone's now well acquainted with the challenges of Dream Tour having to requalify through the QS rather than the CT top 22.

Jack Freestone's now well acquainted with the challenges of Dream Tour having to requalify through the QS rather than the CT top 22.

© 2017 - WSL / Poullenot

It has become popular sport to write off the guys on the bubble each year—those surfers who spend most of their careers in the second tier, requalifying each season by the skin of their teeth and an inspired showing in Hawaii. But although there may be some merit to the assertion that the top 10 or so surf on another level than the rest of the guys on tour, it would be foolish to write the mid and low seeded crowd off as kooks. The reality is that simply getting on tour is a huge achievement in and of itself.

To make the tour takes far more than putting together a couple decent appearances in QS 10,000 events. It’s a minimum of a two-year process, as only the top 100 or so guys on the QS can even get into 10,000 events, so it takes a full season just to earn a high enough seed to become a contender. Then the hard work begins, because while world tour events definitely have the best in the world contesting them, the 10,000 events are arguably even harder, since both WT and QS guys can compete—and the field is usually more than 100 strong.

Two sides of the qualification story. Kanoa double qualified and opened up a spot for Quiksilver team mate and best bud, Zeke Lau.

Two sides of the qualification story. Kanoa double qualified and opened up a spot for Quiksilver team mate and best bud, Zeke Lau.

© 2017 - WSL / Steve Sherman

The top five results on the QS count towards qualification, and 7 of the top 10 on the QS this year finaled in a 10,000 event at least once. But just as tellingly, only one of the 10 actually won a 10,000 event, which means there are four guys who didn’t qualify that are sitting on 10,000 points from a single event—on a tour where you only need 18,000 points to qualify. That's how heavy the competition is.

So why do so many rookies and even sophomores struggle when they first get on tour? After all, Kanoa Igarashi only managed to make it past round three twice this year—and he was one of the few who requalified! And what about sophomore Keanu Asing, who actually won a world tour event, but still didn’t make the top 22 at the end of the year? It may have something to do with the two-man heats instead of four, or the fact that the waves on tour are typically bigger and better than those on the QS, requiring a slightly more powerful skillset. (2016 was an exception, since the waves were pretty damned bad, with the exception of Fiji and a couple fun if not memorable days at Teahupoo and Pipeline.) Whatever it is, there is definitely a change in approach and mindset that has to be made before rookies and bubble boys can thrive.

Highs and lows for Keanu Asing. From winning a CT event to being knocked back down to the QS.

Highs and lows for Keanu Asing. From winning a CT event to being knocked back down to the QS.

© 2017 - WSL / Poullenot

But then again, when that change happens, it happens in pretty damned dramatic fashion. Just ask Matt Wilkinson, who up until this year had barely scraped back onto tour each season with a last-minute run either on the QS or through the bubble on the WT. Wilko came out of the gates firing in March, winning back-to-back events to start the season and lead the world title race for more than half the year. Although he finally faltered and lost ground to eventual world champ John John Florence, there’s no arguing that Wilko made the season exciting.

And what about Sebastian Zietz, who fell off tour last year, yet ended up winning an event as an injury replacement this year, and finished the season in 12th? Or Stuart Kennedy, who has never qualified via the QS, but was first in line for wildcards this past season and qualified the hard way, putting in some of the year’s most exciting and talked about performances in the process?

That’s exactly why the rookies—and the bubble boys—are so important. After all, what fun would the world tour be if there were never any surprises?

2017 World Tour Roster

John John Florence
Jordy Smith
Gabriel Medina
Kolohe Andino
Matt Wilkinson
Michel Bourez
Kelly Slater
Julian Wilson
Joel Parkinson
Filipe Toledo
Adriano De Souza
Sebastian Zietz
Josh Kerr
Adrian Buchan
Italo Ferreira
Caio Ibelli
Mick Fanning
Conner Coffin
Stuart Kennedy
Kanoa Igarashi
Wiggolly Dantas
Miguel Pupo
Connor O’Leary
Ethan Ewing
Frederico Morais
Joan Duru
Leonardo Fioravanti
Jeremy Flores
Jadson Andre
Ian Gouveia
Jack Freestone
Zeke Lau

Injury wildcards
Owen Wright
Bede Durbidge


Matt Rott

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