The World Tour has a big honking problem, and its name is Kelly Slater. Don’t get me wrong – I love me some K9 (K10?). Come to think of it, I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t respect the guy to the point of idolatry. I can, however, think of forty-three guys who should absolutely hate the bastard.
They are the sensitive, fragile young men who he regularly whips like unwanted stepchildren in ten different time zones around the world. This wilting crew of work horses, power surfers, tail-high generation kids, one-time child prodigies, and tortured artists is packed full of more talent than any given X Games but no one has been able to pose a consistent threat to the king since he came out of retirement (Yes, there are debatable exceptions. No, they don’t matter to my argument.). They should all take a page out of Pedro Martinez’s book: tip their sponsor’s hats and call Kelly their daddy. Or their step-daddy, as it were.
So where’s the rage? Where are the guys saying, “I think Kelly is a great surfer, but I can’t wait to go out there and tear him a new one.” Maybe that’s what they are thinking, but they don’t surf like it, and they sure don’t talk like it. Instead, they talk about what an honor it is to surf with him, or how amazing it is to have him comboed, then look back and see him busting an alley oop over their heads. If they get really cross, they whimper about how he messes up their pretty little heads with his devious mind games, because, golly, this is surfing, and that kind of stuff shouldn’t be allowed.
Slater does lose, but he’s rarely beaten. He may have an off day, or the ocean craps out, or he’s jet lagged, or on a borrowed board, but when he paddles out at one hundred percent, he doesn’t lose. This is a testament to his skill and competitive approach, but it also points to a simple fact that no one likes to acknowledge: A lot of his “competitors” compete like amateurs. “I’m just so honored to surf with one of my heroes…” goes that popular pre-heat refrain. Really? You are honored to paddle out and have some guy who is old enough to be your dad make you look like you’re surfing a soft top? Personally, that would piss me off. But I mash a keyboard for a living. I’m sure it’s different when your livelihood depends on winning heats…
One thing is for sure, as gracious a competitor as Slater is, he doesn’t reciprocate the same “honored-to-share-the-lineup” sentiment during competition; he just wants to win, and that’s how it should be. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have nothing but respect for one another, but the second the ball starts bouncing…they’re enemies. When Federer lost to Nadal at the 2009 Australian open, he was so upset with himself that he actually cried. I repeat: a grown man broke down in tears because he could not stand losing. Where is that kind of passion among the stepchildren of the WCT? Perhaps it takes place behind closed doors. Maybe, they tear their singlets off and stomp their boards to pieces and vow on all that is holy that they are going to crush Slater the next time they meet him. But I haven’t seen it. What I see is a lot of guys bowing their heads to the water and accepting an inevitable defeat. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The worst part is the ubiquitous insouciance. I get it: surfers aren’t supposed to care. “It’s just competition.” “Surfing is so much deeper.” “Heats are too restricting.” “You can’t control the ocean.” “I’m happy to see my friends go through.” How many different ways can you rationalize losing? This is either a cheap facade that surfers use to save face, or it’s the truth and these guys simply don’t care that much about losing. I’m not sure which is worse, but the salient point is: if they don’t care, why should we? There has been a lot of talk recently about making the WCT more professional with more prize money, more event coverage, better promotion, etc. A lot of people would like to see the Tour grow, and given the current talent levels, it can. But it’s not going anywhere as long as the competitive aspect remains decidedly amateur.
I’m not questioning the quality of surfing. It’s obvious that the performance levels in heats are part of a completely different universe than the three to the beach paradigm so magnificently usurped in a few short years. My hat goes off to the guys pushing the boundaries of competitive surfing, but they have to realize that none of it means much if they continue to view terms like “mind-games,” “strategy,” and “caring” as four letter words. After all, I don’t have to watch a webcast to see the most progressive surfing in the world; I can check it out on various web sites any day of the week. So why watch a competition? Well, for the competition.
Many surfers can barrel ride or stomp an air reverse when they’re given ten takes in perfect waves. But there are very few who can do the same in a twenty-minute period when money, rankings, careers, and pride hang in the balance. When great surfers go head to head, it’s exciting in the way that no million-dollar biopic, or generation-defining surf film will ever be. It’s the drama of two men who want to prove to themselves and to their peers that they are the better surfer. It’s magic stuff, and until these surfers who “are just happy to see their bros get through” understand that, their Tour will remain in the bush leagues.
You might argue that surfing is, in its essence, antithetical to the official, heavily regulated, competitive nature of a professional tour. And to an extent you’re right, but that’s a topic for another day. Pro competitive surfing isn’t going anywhere; the question is whether it will continue to be an insipid bro-down where one savant dominates a bunch of boy scouts, or if these kids are going to take the gloves off and really start swinging. Almost any of these guys has the potential to beat the big, bad Slater, but not if the prevailing attitude toward competition persists.
Surfing’s laid-back attitude and anti-professionalism are some of its great charms, but they have no place in competition. The top forty-three can’t have it both ways. If these guys are serious about making their sport serious, they’ve got to get mean. There’s no such thing as a “cruisey” professional.