'Sorry I didn't win," said a visibly dejected Jordy Smith to the crowd packed on to the beach at Ballito in KwaZulu-Natal last Saturday. "I tried to fly the flag." Smith had just finished second to Australian Julian Wilson in the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) Prime series Mr Price Pro event. "Thank you so much, you were amazing," he said. "It's been a great week."
The 35-minute final, a showdown between the two form surfers of the contest, did not produce the result local fans, or Smith, wanted.
Smith commented afterwards that he'd "done nothing wrong in the final", and that Wilson was just fortunate to "land that air". Wilson had scored a perfect 10 out of 10 for a spectacular alley-oop 360o aerial manoeuvre. "I swear I've seen him try that 100 times, and never land it," said Smith.
It wasn't a bitter comment or an attack on Wilson (they're good friends), but rather a statement by a man at the peak of his game and now, once again, brimming with the confidence that could see him go to the top of the world rankings.
In September last year Smith and filmmaker Kai Neville launched Bending Colours, a movie Surfing magazine called "a moving portrait of Jordy, not a biopic".
The article went on to say that "the film captures game-changing surfing".
Progressive and versatile surfers
The film's release couldn't have been timed more perfectly. It came at a phase in Smith's career when, after a rib injury in Tahiti in mid-2011, he was struggling to regain any kind of competitive form. The film shifted the focus from his slip down the ASP World Championship rankings to the fact that the big man from Durban is one of the most progressive and versatile surfers in the world.
Bending Colours went on to earn a 2012 Surfing poll movie of the year nomination (the surfing industry's Oscars) and no doubt takes pride of place among the DVD collections of thousands of aspiring young surfers around the world.
But fame, photos and game-changing movie parts aside, Smith is a competitor at heart and is unlikely to be satisfied until he's world champion. If the first half of 2013 is anything to go by this might just be his year: he won the Billabong Pro in Brazil, came third in the Rip Curl Pro at Bells Beach, Australia, fifth in the Volcom Fiji Pro and second at Ballito.
"What's different this year is that I've definitely been a lot more prepared and relaxed going into events," said Smith. "Last year I felt like I was always behind a little speed bump and just battling to get over it. I went to Mozambique in January and scored really amazing waves, and kind of just started believing in myself again.
"I went to Bells with confidence and that result was kind of the turning point for me. I realised that all I need to do is go out there and stick to my game plan … things will fall into place."
If it's the good results that give Smith confidence, then it's how he's handled the bad ones (he's also had two 13th places this year), and other mishaps along the way that's made the experienced pundits take notice. After snapping a fin on his favourite board midway through the Mr Price quarterfinal, he calmly rode the foamie to the beach, discarded the broken board and ran over to where coach Jarrod Howse was waiting with a back-up.
To the experts it was a revelation that the world title contender's package of talent, luck and attitude was coming together.
'In a happier place'
The general feeling is that the kid has grown up and his head is in the right space. Much has been written about what's brought on this mental shift and plenty said about the "new" Jordy and the prospects he has.
Whether it's the new coach: Howse joined Team Jordy this year after a 10-year career as professional surfer, or better equipment: "I've stuck to a few boards, where in years past I would just jump on different equipment going into heats", or less people in his entourage: "I just felt that I needed to please everybody, you know," doesn't really matter. What matters is that the recipe is working. Smith knows this, but he's also philosophical about it all.
"I'm just in a happier place in my life," he says. "There's nothing I need or anything like that… Of course I'm chasing a world title, but I'm not going to try and force it."
Smith is set to compete in the United States for the Vans US Open of Surfing at Huntington Beach from July 20 to 28, an ASP Prime event, before heading on to Teahupoo in Tahiti for event six of the 10-event ASP World Championship Tour.
Follow his journey to the world title at redbull.co.za