How many second-lasts in crummy waves can he stomach before Slater slings it for good?
It was the substitute commentator Dave Stanfield who prophesied the dramatic exit of the 43-year-old Kelly Slater. As Slater and his first-year-on-tour competitor, Matt Banting, 20, organised themselves among a lineup of three-foot closeouts, Stanfield said:
“Here is Kelly Slater. Yes. You are watching history. Every time he goes into the water you’re fortunate to be able to see this incredible athlete go to town, twenty-five years as a pro… ”
Slater’s former travel buddy Ross Williams commenting on the almost-quarter age gap ‘tween the two added, “It could be Matt Banting’s pops right there!”
It all sounded more eulogy than stage entrance.
Not that it was immediately apparent. Four minutes into the thirty-minute heat and still looking like the most perfectly well-oiled machine the sport has ever seen, Kelly raced hard on a righthander, threw his back foot on the tail, extended the front, and didn’t just rotate… but… corked… a full-rotation, and then some, air. It didn’t land and subsequently Kelly scored a 1.23.
“Things are getting hot!” said Stanfield.
“Kelly is… definitely… inspired by John John and Filipe,” said Williams.
And that was it. The heat degenerated into yet another crummy find-a-corner-scrunch-into-a-tube-add-two-lip-taps-for-a-five. Hasn’t that been the story of Slater’ swansong season? These dreadful heats with a jelly-fish structure, no articulation or power?
And it will be Kelly’s swansong season because he will barely make the top 10. Even an animal of competition like Kelly isn’t going to suffer the indignity of an inexorable backward slide. Could he reconquer the world given the right conditions? There’ve been more ambitious plans. Imagine a tour that was 80 per cent reefs, run in eight-foot waves. It would be a blizzard, again, of Slater wins.
What does it say about a sport that sends its greatest ever, its one statesman, the man whom carries its success on his shoulders, into dark mildewed holes like some grunt in a poorly chosen war?
Matt Banting, meanwhile, is a bland man no one could hate. He is adept at accelerating and slowing down, rotating his shoulders and hips and adjusting his stance to complete nearly every manoeuvre currently in play. No effort is squandered on the application of style or idiosyncrasy. No sense of gesture or individuality.
Two turns, maybe a little tube and that’s all it takes to beat Slater in crummy closeouts.
For Kelly there was no hands-free, below-the-rim backside tube tens like last year. No writers searching for weapons-grade adjectives to describe another extraordinary leap forward in performance.
Just hot dogs served without mustard and a champ who took a boot in the face for his sport.