Can Anyone Fill The Slater Void?
Teahupoo without Kelly Slater’s just not the same.
The first contest without Kelly Slater is underway and it’s just not the same. Over the years, Kelly established himself as the king of Teahupoo. In the nearly 20 years the contest has been running he made seven finals, winning five of them. His first victory came in 2000, his last was a year ago when he beat John John Florence. After breaking his foot in J-Bay (for the fourth time in his career) and then returning to California for successful reconstructive surgery, he’s expected to be out another four to six months. With such a long recovery time, it’s doubtful he’ll return for the rest of the season, one that was supposed to be his victory lap.
This brings up the subject of the “Slater Void”. We live in a post-Slater world. Nobody knows what he has in store for next year. We may never see him in a jersey again. And while that seems doubtful, it is something we’ve had to reconcile with in the past. When Slater walked away from the tour in 1998 the reaction was similar: what the hell do we do next?
His hiatus allowed Sunny Garcia and Mark Occhilupo to win their titles, but the sport of surfing was decidedly less interesting. Now, at 45 years old, Slater stands as the last link on tour between the old guard and the new guard. When Slater first took to the tour, he was the young pup upsetting ageing world champions like Martin Potter and Tom Curren. After he convinced that generation that it was time to hang up the jersey, he proceeded to beat his own generation into submission. After winning his first title in 1992, he slid down to fifth in the world in ’93, then owned the title from ’94 through ’98. Nobody on tour’s ever been so dominant.
After his brief sabbatical, Slater returned to the tour in 2002 and the greatest rivalry in surf was born. The years between 2002 and 2008 marked some of the most competitive and compelling of his career, as he and Andy Irons elevated the sport to never-before-seen heights. For a brief moment competitive surfing was actually interesting. Follow-up titles in 2010 and 2011 cemented his legacy. Now he’s gone. Well, not gone, but he’s not here in Tahiti.
John John Florence and Matt Wilkinson won their Round 1 heats today in sub-par conditions. It seems this year’s world title race will more than likely come down to those two surfers. Neither have the chip on their shoulder required to be a as polarizing figures. Jordy Smith and Owen Wright are still very much in the title hunt, but today Smith looked lost at sea (even with new coach Chris Gallagher in his corner) and Wright was a victim of the conditions. The thing is, nobody on tour right now has a penchant for pulling off the impossible like Slater did. Posting perfect heats and pounding Hinano’s in the barrel, who does that? “Today was one of those days,” said Slater after his perfect heat in 2005. “In the final, I can't explain it. I wasn't expecting to get two perfect 10's but I knew it was possible out there, and that someone could do it. The waves just came to me. It's all about the waves coming to you, and you riding them right, and to their full potential.
Who else is going to whisper, “I love you” in the ear of their fiercest rival? It’s hard to imagine Kanoa Igarashi blowing sweet nothings to Filipe Toledo before they paddle out for a heat. The competitive fire that Slater competed with was unequaled. Mind games were his game. Everyone on tour has stories. Hell, in ’95 he baited best friend Rob Machado into giving him the now-famous high five in the channel at Pipe, costing Machado the title and essentially handing it to Slater. When we say there’s a “Slater Void” that’s what we’re talking about. It’s not just the fact that he’s not physically here (most of the time nobody even knew if he was on the island anyway). Without Slater, we’re missing a big chunk of what makes competitive surfing so fun to watch. It remains to be seen who will rise-up and take his place. Maybe nobody will. He may just go down in history like Michael Jordan, as the best-ever. Period.