Kelly Slater warms up for the 2010 Hurley Pro at Lowers

Hats 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. Photo: Hurley/ASP


The Inertia

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.

Kelly Slater's alley oop air at the 2010 Rip Curl Pro Portugal Finals

"Check it out! Kelly Slater did a huge alley oop over me before beating me in our heat. It was an an honor to share the lineup with him." Photo: ASP/Kirstin

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.

  • Mike Balzer

    Way to hit the nail on the head. When Kelly first went on tour he slaughtered his idols, Curren, Carroll, Elko and more. He then took to his own crew, the New School. Machado, at the time, even bought into Kelly’s idea of getting trunks that had printed on the butt, “I don’t even care”. With that attitude Kelly ran right over his fellow New Schoolers to World Titles while they rode off into the sunset. Machado, to this day, regrets not giving it his all and laying down to Kelly in more heats than just the final of the Pipe Masters. Where Rob himself could of won a World Title if not for the role of one Kelly Slater. He has it all, heat smarts, time management, strategy and talent that comes along next to never. He will win his 10th soon and he should be cherished for where he has taken surfing.

  • B.R.E.W.

    “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.”

    You’re preaching to the choir on this end. A small place shall always be reserved for the playground legends with heavy Youtube hits, but the big stage separates the testicles from the scrotum… so to speak.

    Though I am partial to the term Xlater, X Time World Champ myself… for obvious reasons.

    Nice work.

  • Nick Carroll

    Ha ha ha, Endo, if you reckon those sound bite comments reflect the true nature of most pro surfers’ attitudes to KS and his competitive dominance, you’ve just been sucked in by the ASP media release mechanism.

    The “I just wanna play guitar with my friends” thing lasted about four years, on and off, between 1994 and 1998, and evaporated on tour for good around 2000.

    The truth is that surfing a one-on-one competitive heat at ASP WT level is a complex thing. There’s almost nothing truly head to head about it. Heats can be won in an almost infinite variety of ways, but rarely are they won with what you describe as “getting mean”.

    The most effective state of mind for most surfers in a heat situation is composure. If you’re gonna pick the right wave while holding priority, then use it to produce a nine-plus with four minutes on the clock, you’ve got to be in a good place; adrenalised, sure, but not to the point of losing a sense of the wave itself, or hurrying a turn out of place. All the top 32/34 know this very well and work toward cultivating this ability to remain calm in difficult situations, and even to find enjoyment in the process. “Mean” has very little place in this equation.

    KS, with his undimmed charisma, nine world championships and confident physical presence, is great at shaking people out of this composed state and causing them to make silly errors. He is surprisingly vulnerable to surfers who manage to immunize themselves against this. AI is one example – when he’s had the upper hand consistently on Kelly, it’s because he’s been sort of emotionally radioactive, and no matter what Kelly’s tried on him, it hasn’t penetrated his shield. (You might recall Kelly’s awesome last throw of the dice on the beach at Pipe in 2003, trying to get under Andy’s skin as they braced for the final; “I love you, man.” Ha! Just bounced right off. Or their great semi-final heat at Chopes this year.) Owen Wright is another recent example, a quite different one, who took down KS in their first two meetings simply by keeping his head; Owen is just a very secure young man.

    Surfers who allow themselves to be shaken out of a heat win by KS’s mastery of psyche almost always are deeply dismayed by themselves later, no matter what they tell the cheeseball on-beach interviewer. The process causes them to self-criticise and grow negative about their skills. At times, Kelly has been the least popular surfer on tour thanks to this delayed-reaction resentment of his abilities. One gets the sense that, like most top end pros, he’ll swap popularity for a heat win most days of the week.

    Feels to me that this year he’s just seized the day in consistently better fashion than most other surfers. Kelly’s got 400 heats on almost all his competitors; he hasn’t rotted his potential earlier in his career through drugs or booze or unforeseen brutal injury; he keeps it fresh by doing other things aside from prepping for the next event; most of all he underpins it through his almost ridiculous and still quite lively skill level, which while not being the overwhelming force it was in the 1990s, is still turning out 10s without too much trouble. If he gets his tenth in 2010, it’ll be his doing, not his competitors’.

  • Adfasdf

    i wouldn’t call him big, he only weighs 71 kilos, that’s a light weight.

  • walrus

    most of the modern tour surfers should be embarassed that a 38 year old continues to ‘school’ them year in and year out on tour. there is little or no killer instinct on tour, they are too busy being cool or bros or one with the ocean. crap, they need to get into the mind set that slater is taking their money and food out of their mouths! a good dose of sports psychology and a winning attitude might go a long way