WSL Finals by the Numbers: Breaking Down Trends in Surfing's World Title Tourney

Steph Gilmore and Filipe Toledo, 2022 world champs. Photo: Beatriz Ryder//World Surf League

The Inertia

The Rip Curl WSL Finals are set to kick off on September 8, at Trestles. This is the third incarnation of what was the most radical change to the professional surfing world order since the IPS and a ranking-based World Title was introduced in 1976. 

With two Finals now under our belt we have, just about, a large enough sample size to crunch the numbers. Across the Men’s and Women’s, the data set includes 21 “match-ups” as the WSL calls them, nine of which were the World Title showdowns. It’s enough to extrapolate a few recurring trends, which might help predict what might go down on the cobblestones this year.

Rankings Matter

The Finals is set up so that the World No.5 first goes against the World No.4, and so on, in a winner-plays-on format. The World No. 1s, this year Carissa Moore and Filipe Toledo, are therefore guaranteed a slot in the best-of-three World Title showdown. Out of the four World Titles decided at the Finals, the top-ranked surfer has won three of them. The significant anomaly was Steph Gilmore last year, but we’ll deal with that later. 

Now the results make sense; the World No. 1 is usually the form surfer of the year, and only has to win two heats to secure the Title. They also come in fresh, and with the best of three heats, can afford a slip-up in the first one. The fan’s fear that the best surfer all year (in 2021, Medina had won the CT rankings by more than 13,000 points) could lose it all in a crap shoot, has so far been unfounded. This year both Moore and Toledo again will have the shortest odds to win, given their form, experience and weighted advantage. 

The Anomaly

Last year Steph Gilmore came from the No. 5 position to claim the World Title. No other surfer, man or woman, had jumped more than two spots above their CT rankings in the Finals. Italo’s jump from fourth to second last year was the next-best rise. Steph had to win three sudden-death heats before facing Moore, and her 2-0 win, meant she surfed five heats in the day (though the maximum is six). It’s a massive task for a surfer to deal with the physical and emotional toll of such a day. Though as Steph was gunning for a record eighth World Title, perhaps no surfer was better equipped for the task. It also showed it was possible, something that the fifth seeds Caitlin Simmers and Jack Robinson will be clinging on to this year.  

WSL Finals by the Numbers: Breaking Down Trends in Surfing's World Title Tourney

Will Caity Simmers struggle at her first WSL Finals? We don’t expect it but the numbers suggest she might. Photo: Damien Poullenot//World Surf League

Rookies Struggle  

Filipe Toledo’s win last year was the first time a surfer without a World Title had claimed one at Trestles. Moore, Medina and Gilmore had 13 Titles between them before they claimed their crowns at the WSL Finals. Finals rookies also haven’t performed well. Morgan Cibilic, Jack Robinson, Brisa Hennessy, Ethan Ewing and Kanoa Igarashi all lost their first-ever WSL final matchups. This year features more Finals rookies than previously. Tyler Wright, Caitlin Simmers, Molly Picklum, Caroline Marks, Griffin Colapinto and Joao Chianca will all be surfing the format for the first time. Sure, it’s one of the most talented group of Finals rookies ever assembled, but they will all face a new challenge with added pressures.  


To Win, You Have To Peak At The Final

This may be a by-product of the rankings correlation, and the fact that the World No.1 comes into the final matchup fresh, but the average heat totals for the Title Showdown in each division, have been the highest of the day. Last year Steph’s final two heat totals were 15.00 and 15.23, when no other woman had posted above 15. In 2021 Medina racked up 17.53 points to claim his third World Title, which was the highest two-wave heat total of the day. 

The same year Moore came up with a 17.26 to push the showdown to a third heat against Weston-Webb (the only time a third tie-breaker heat has been used). That was also the highest heat total of that day. The point is that whoever progresses through the rounds knows that’s the easy part. The stats show beating the World No. 1 has required two waves in the excellent scoring range, in two heats. Not easy, given the intense pressure and the energy expended to get there. 

Goofy’s Have Their Backs Against The Wall

Trestles, whilst a peak, skews right in terms of the quantity and quality of waves ridden over both WSL Finals. Now surfers’ backhands are no longer a weak point, and in some cases (eg Italo and Tatiana) can be considered a weapon. Yet the goofy-footers haven’t fared well. This could be simply numerical; of the 14 surfers to have appeared in the WSL Finals, only three have been goofy. And while they have surfed more heats (11 out of 21) than their proportionate representation, they have only won six of those. In 2023 their stocks are even more depleted, almost to the point of extinction. With Finals stalwarts Medina, Ferreira and Weston-Webb all missing, it will come down to Caroline Marks to carry the right-foot-forward flag on her own. History, and the odds, are against her. 

The WSL Finals event window is September 8-16.


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