World Titles are no longer won incidentally. That was the lesson of 2015.
Nobody is going to drift their way to the top of today's swollen vanguard.
Heading into 2016 there are arguably ten viable world title contenders. Of the 10, five have expressed a genuine desire to go after it this year. We know Mick Fanning isn't one of them. He's going to relish playing the spoiler role in 2016, and deservedly so. But one person we weren't sure of, and frankly never ever are heading into Snapper, is Kelly Slater.
Today we got our answer.
"I felt like this year things would really start coming together," Slater said after his Round 2 loss to Stu Kennedy. "And maybe they will, but...that's a frustrating way to get going…I was just talking to my girlfriend about it and something needs to give for me. I'm not feeling the flow to be honest."
Fact is, while conditions weren't perfect, Slater was genuinely out surfed by a replacement surfer Sunday, which is a huge testament to the level of surfing from top to bottom on today's elite tour. Kennedy, of Lennox Head, is replacing the injured Bede Durbidge for now.
Interestingly enough, he has a direct connection one of Slater's many business ventures. Stu has been the biggest proponent of Daniel Thomson's Tomo designs for years. Thomson, just in case you've been living under a rock, is one of the shapers Slater joined forces with to launch his new Slater Designs surfboard company.
The Slater vs. Kennedy match was a battle between two of Slater's sku numbers. Kennedy was on Tomo's Sci-Phi model, which he played a huge role in refining. Slater, meanwhile, went with the updated ode to Greg Webber's Banana.
The Banana, with its signature hyper-rocker, is specifically designed for perfect waves, and while two weeks ago the Superbank was firing on all cylinders, on Sunday it was chunky monkey. Rippable, for sure, but far from firing. Their match was was half won on board selection alone.
Slater labored in the flat and fat sections, while Kennedy was flying around like he'd been fired out of a sling shot. Slater swooped beautifully through the steeper sections, but those were few and far between. Kennedy, by contrast, was whipping his board around with lightning speed, carrying it beautifully through punctuated turns. He was behind toward the the end, but made the absolute most of his final opportunity, delivering a volley of off-the-tops followed by an inverted under-the-lip reverse.
And just like that, any chance of Slater drifting his way toward a title fight was gone. Title runs take full commitment these days, and Slater, by his own admission, is in "creative" mode right now. When asked about what's motivating him to get out of bed more, board design or heat scores, he didn't flinch. "Board design," he replied. ""Like every time I paddle out I want to try something a different board, so yeah, I am in that kind of creative mode...I'm not thinking about how to get the highest scores right now."
"I'm such an indecisive person," Kelly says, "especially the last couple years of my life, so I think that's showing in my contest results."
At 44, Kelly Slater is having too much fun being distracted. "I've got a lot of fun things going on -- a lot of creative things -- that can be a way to plug in all your thoughts, but it can also be a distraction if you've got one main goal."
In other words, focusing on a title requires, well, focus. And Slater's not sure if he has enough mind energy to make that kind of run.
Meanwhile, as a CT replacement, Stu Kennedy isn't technically a rookie, he certainly will be someday if today is any indication. And the rookie class that got hazed on Friday regrouped and got their revenge on this day, led by Kennedy. While Wild Card Wade Carmichael fell to Adriano de Souza, his last place result was one of the most respectable in recent memory. On Friday he took Fanning the distance. Today he did the same to Adriano. The gist: keep your eyes on Carmichael.
Ryan Callinan pulled one of the bigger upsets of the day, utilizing his vertical backhand attack to send Jordy Smith packing for Bells. The tough early loss for Smith, a would-be title contender, is something he'll have to shake off quickly to stay in the game. California kids Conner Coffin and Kanoa Igarashi both surfed crisp and clean during respective pairings with Kai Otton and Keanu Asing. Coffin unleashed his textbook carves, while Igarashi did his flaring with rapid-fire tail releases. Coffin will meet up with Italo Ferreira in Round 3, while Igarashi will face Jeremy Flores.
While Alex Ribeiro fell to an in-form Ace Buchan, he looked impressively spry on his backhand for somebody who was literally in crutches last week with a serious heel laceration.
As for rookies Jack Freestone and Caio Ibelli, they'll be going head-to-head as Round 2 resumes, so at least one rookie will be falling to friendly fire. The winner will face either Josh Kerr or Nat Young in Round 3.
Round 3 is sure to be a crowd pleaser, with several A-listers being paired: John John Florence has Michel Bourez; Matt Wilkinson is up against Taj Burrow; Mick Fanning will face Sebastian Zietz; Gabe Medina drew Stu Kennedy; and Adriano de Souza is up against Wild Card Mikey Wright.
This is getting interesting.