The Weekend Australian
Getting rare air at Merewether
Morgan Cibilic did a Peter Doohan then nicked off home to watch The Pursuit of Happyness.
You know the story about Doohan? The one about the unheralded, understated and unbackable Newcastle tennis player who went to Wimbledon and knocked over Boris Becker? Doohan’s triumph at The All England Club in 1987 is part of Novocastrian sporting folklore and when Cibilic beat John John Florence in the World Surf League’s Newcastle Cup this week, he earned a similar degree of local legendom. “I know the name,” he said of the late Doohan. “And I know the story. I’ll take the comparison.”
The Newcastle Cup hit rare heights late on Friday when Carissa Moore, whom her fellow Hawaiians swear will win more world titles than Stephanie Gilmore, pulled off an aerial manoeuvre rarely seen among women surfers. Moore took off on a little pocket rocket of a wave. It was shaped like a half-pipe. She crouched and launched and went up and up towards cloud nine, unable to contain her glee and surprise when she nailed the landing. Her hands went to her face, she laughed, she waved at her coach and reached the semi-finals after Gilmore had been beaten in the quarters by fellow Australian Isabella Nichols.
Moore, the four-time world champion, just three shy of Gilmore’s benchmark tally, had never pulled such a stunt in a heat. “I’m just really excited,” she said. “You have to keep reinventing yourself. Oh my gosh. These waves are incredible. There’s turns, there’s airs, there’s barrels, there’s under the lip surfing. It’s so exciting.”
Newcastle is a fine old sporting city. Tales of sporting triumph include Rick McCosker batting in an Ashes Test with a broken jaw; Dutchy Holland’s 10 wickets against the West Indies at the SCG; Craig Johnston’s goal for Liverpool in the FA Cup final; Mark Richards’s four world surfing titles; Doohan serving and volleying past Becker on
Wimbledon’s Number One Court; Andrew Johns’s pass to Darren Albert to win the 1997 grand final for the Knights. There’s a touch of David and Goliath about them all.
Cibilic was an inexperienced 21-year-old rookie against the allconquering 28-year-old two-time world champion and the reigning Pipe Masters champion. Not too long ago, commentators didn’t even know how to pronounce his surname. He didn’t just beat Florence, a Boom Boom Becker on a surfboard, he smoked him.
It might not have registered too deeply on the national scale but for a wet-behind-the-ears WSL surfer to have produced such a dream heat against the world No 1, while nursing a broken toe, at his home beach, on the sport’s major championship tour, it’s hard to beat for local acclaim.
“It‘s been an insane week,” Cibilic said after beating Wade Carmichael to reach the quarter-finals of the Newcastle Cup alongside fellow Merewether surfer Ryan Callinan. In a bittersweet quirk of the draw, they will face each other for a spot in the semi-finals.
“After I beat John John, straight after that heat, you know — I was just losing my mind. What’s just happened? I felt like I’d won an entire contest. I was on top of the world. I went and had a bit of food with my coach, relaxed, played the heat over to see if I could have done anything better.
“To have your home crowd see it, to have so many people here, to hear them cheering for you every time you get a wave, I’ll never forget any of it. It was all a bit much, so I went home and watched the rest of the day of competition on the TV. And then I watched Pursuit of Happyness and felt kind of inspired all over again to take this contest as far as I could.”
The Pursuit of Happyness is about a nobody who comes a somebody. Cibilic is still a relative nobody to the broader Australian sporting community, but in surfing, he‘s stormed onto the world scene in Newcastle.
To beat Florence is an incredible accomplishment. If he goes on and wins the whole contest – well, Doohan didn’t go on to win Wimbledon, put it that way. A victory for Cibilic or Callinan at their home beach would be true fairytale stuff. Bright-eyed, wild-haired groms are getting around in singlets and T-shirts with Cibilic and Callinan written on their backs. The mere sight of the two Merewether surfers makes the little rugrats hoot and holler and yew. It’s a tremendous atmosphere.
Two of these kids watched Callinan run down the beach before his fourth-round win over Australia’s Olympian-to-be Owen Wright on Friday. One was saying: “Ryan! Can I get a high five!” The other kid said: ”Shut up! He needs to concentrate!” After Callinan moved into the quarter-finals, likely to be held on Saturday, both those kids got their high fives.
Cibilic tore apart the section of surf known as The Rocks. His left foot was heavily strapped because of the broken little toe.
“I didn’t want to have a let down,” he said. ”I know that can happen in sport. You have a big win and then you’re not as committed the next day. I started feeling good and up for it again. The pursuit of happiness, maybe! Had brekky, cruised down to the comp, had a win. Makes me think, let’s keep it going.
“I’ve fractured my fifth metatarsal and bruised all the joints on my toes on my left foot. The doctor said if it’s taped up like it is now, it should be all right. I was on the fence about being able to surf against John John. I got the scans done, we spoke to a bunch of specialists, but the whole time I was, I’m surfing. I’m surfing. I don’t care. You don’t get to surf against John John Florence at your home beach every day.”
The men’s quarter-finals feature five Brazilians, two Merewether mates and an American — Gabriel Medina versus Adrian de Souza, Cibilic against Callinan, Italo Ferreira versus Deivid Silva and Filipe Toledo against the US’s Conner Coffin. Australians Steph Gilmore, Isabella Nichols, Keely Andrews and Bronte Macaulay are through to the women’s quarter-finals. Swell forecasts are promising for the weekend.