Ash Barty drops in to Bells Beach as Steph Gilmore and Mick Fanning keep their competition alive

Retired tennis star Ash Barty has made a surprise appearance at Bells Beach to see a group of Australian surfers keep their Rip Curl Pro hopes alive.

Barty said she wasn’t a surfing expert but had joined the crowd to support her “mates”.

“This is unreal, the first time for me coming down here, a beautiful part of the world, and get to watch a few mates do their thing – it’s pretty cool,” she said.

“It’s nice to be here and watch the pros do their thing, and I get to enjoy it as a fan.”

Surfing star Stephanie Gilmore said she was nervous performing in front of the Australian Open champion.

“I was actually a little bit nervous when I saw you here,” Gilmore told Barty.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to have to put on a good show.’

“It’d be special [to win here] and Bells is as close to Wimbledon as we have … but I’ve had a pretty bad start to the year, so I’ve got some work to do just to make the cut.”

Gilmore will take the slice of luck that’s seen her directly through to round 3 of the competition as the seven-time world surfing champion fights to avoid the mid-season cut.

Gilmore, who missed the season opener with COVID-19, sits 14th after three events, while fellow Australian Sally Fitzgibbons is 17th.

Only the top 10 will continue beyond the next event at Margaret River in the WSL’s new format, with Tyler Wright (seventh) and India Robinson (eighth) the only two Australian women currently above the cut line.

It’s why Gilmore breathed a big sigh of relief when her mistake to paddle into her heat’s final wave at Winkipop — the next break down from Bells Beach — with compatriot Molly Picklum wasn’t punished with an interference penalty.

That would have dropped her to last and into a sudden-death second round.

Judges ruled she didn’t venture close enough to have an impact, leaving Gilmore on top in the heat with a 12.16, ahead of series leader Brisa Hennessy (11.16) and Picklum (10.20), who later exited in the elimination round.

“I knew that both Molly and Brisa work with Micro [coach Glenn Hall]so was thinking he’s got a plan for them to put me in the middle, team up and get some scores,” Gilmore said.

“So I thought I’d stay out of that … but I kept falling off my last turn and there was a bit of drama at the end there.

“But I guess I didn’t interfere, so that was lucky for me.”

Fitzgibbons was forced into a knockout elimination round despite her 13.06-point total, only to dominate it with a 15.10 late in the day to join five other Australian women in the round of 16.

Wright and Robinson both progressed with second-place efforts in their heats, while Isabella Nichols beat Carissa Moore to win her heat.

Mick Fanning (11.90 points) was also relieved to recover from his first-round flop.

Scoring just 6.73 on Monday, the three-time world champion looked sharper in beating Seth Moniz (8.90) to join compatriot Morgan Cibilic (14.84) ​​in progressing from their eliminator heat.

Connor O’Leary also progressed, leaving 10 Australian men standing in the round of 32.

“[Yesterday] was the first time I’ve come in mad after a surf for a really long time,” Fanning said.

“Everything on my behalf was just bad, so I’ll just keep a little bit of that madness maybe [for the third round].”

AAP/ABC

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