It was, in the end, over in less than 10. By about the seven minute mark in the quarter final of the Rip Curl Search Somewhere in Puerto Rico, and by sheer force of competitive will, total mastery and perhaps some divine assistance, Kelly Slater had his 10th World Title completely sewn up.
Fate chose Adriano De Souza to be the fall guy – the last, poor, unfortunate mortal to tackle the Titan as he reached for a summit never dreamed of in surfing, or possibly any other professional sport. This close, after two decades of almost total dominance and a week of amassing enough points to push himself further and further out of reach of his nearest title rival, Jordy Smith, Slater just needed to win this heat to secure his epic tenth.
Adriano is no mean competitor but Kelly, on this and most days, is meaner. Today the gods wanted him to win and perhaps join them up there in Mount Olympus. With a beach packed full of friends, family and supporters from Puerto Rico and beyond, Kelly wasn’t about to leave them in any doubt whatsoever that this whole ‘Kelly 10’ thing was an absolute dead cert. No messy delays until the Pipeline contest in December; no hesitations. And for Adriano, no chance.
The first wave came within the first minute and Kelly paddled like a puma to place himself under it. He turned, dropped in, tucked in and travelled on and on and on before popping out into a hail of screams from the beach. A final lipsmack finished it off, late, but landed. The judges called it a 9-point ride. The crowd roared and danced and jumped and screamed and held up signs that said: “10”.
Adriano sat still as a statue as the ocean breathed in before puffing out another lump, again clean and solid and aimed, somehow at a priority-less Kelly. It slipped past the Brazilian and cupped itself up into a shining blue bowl, presenting itself to the master like a chalice from heaven. From the shore he looked too late, but this is the way with the best waves we surf, and the best waves the best surfers surf even more so. “Don’t go!” shouted a local inches from my right ear, but it was too late, Kelly was committed. He was hunched and burrowing as the wave folded over and within miliseconds he’d gained ground that you and I and the local beside me had never thought possible. With speed in his pocket he flew under the lip and pumped and weaved behind the curtain, a red blur chasing cascades of Caribbean crystal. And of course he re-emerged, briefly. The crowd gasped and roared him under the next curtain, a second section that looked more like a silver nail in the coffin for Adriano and any other contender who ever dared challenge his genius. He popped out and into a two-stage cutback to the top of the whitewater, and back to a minor foam climb that allowed him a moment to briefly claim as he landed without even looking.
Five minutes in and it was done. A 9.87. He paddled back and some time before the 10 minute mark he threw away an 8-point-something. Doesn’t matter. Didn’t matter. The deal was done. Adriano could try, he could fly and he could crank it up to an 8, but he was already a dead duck. The crowd was still going loco. The corporates were throwing out Kelly 10 tees and hats and stickers; and the gods were well pleased.
The rest of the heat was just a show of prowess. Huge floaters. Stupid airs and rotations. There was a wipe out or two, but by the end KS was already high on the champagne to come. He caught one in as the hooter went, the crowd lifted him up on their shoulders, they screamed, they willed their love at him, tried to shake his hands or touch him like he was Jesus returning on a donkey. The man-god played the game. He said the right things, with just the right mix of pride and humility, joy and sadness (the very late Andy Irons, the tempering force, but not a dampener).
“I don’t know, it just happened,” Slater said. “If you look at the heat, Adriano (De Souza) passed one up and let me have it and that was a good wave and that was pretty much it a few minutes into the heat. I just want to send my condolences to Irons family. It’s been a week of extremes for me. If it wasn’t for Andy (Irons) there is no way I’d be here in this position right now. I don’t really know what else to say, I’m a little overwhelmed right now. I want to dedicate this to Andy and to my family.”
In these moments, the surf world acted with surprise because, although we weren’t, we didn’t think this kind of dominance was really possible. Two decades of mastery and barely a stumble on the way. We were happy and honoured to watch, whether on the shore or on the webcast. Quik was delighted, Rip Curl was thrilled to snag something of their glory moment. The Earth carried on spinning, most of humanity took no notice at all, but surfers the world over noted an undeniably historic moment.
Maybe now Kelly Slater can find find a comfortable perch at the top of the mountain, relax and consider how he’ll deal the world below.
Postscript: Later on the same day Kelly Slater went on to win the Rip Curl Pro Search event after beating Bede Durbidge in the final. QED.