Words: Chris Binns
If ever there’s a contest where the hyperbole is justified, it’s the Volcom Fiji Pro. Perhaps it’s the romantic notion that this event and the Quiksilver Pro at G-Land were the cornerstone’s of Rabbit’s Dreamtour salad days, and that last year’s return signals a turning point in surfing’s revival. Maybe it is because for so many a stay at either Tavarua or Namotu represents the dream trip they’d love more than any other. Or possibly it’s because the waves of Cloudbreak and Restaurants seem so perfect, so textbook, so clean that all surfers can relate, and the results seem so honest.
In fairness though the reasons this event generates so much hype are threefold; the Top 34 (and wildcards, take a bow Mitch Coleborn) are so damn excited to be tearing into So-Pac perfection they take their performances to new heights; the waves offer both incredible barrels and sections that demand critical, strong rail work; and because it is where surfing’s greatest ornament, Kelly Slater, is at his absolute fearsome best.
Today, in winning his 53rd event in the roping 6-8ft lefts of Cloudbreak, the eleven-time world champ stole back the number one ranking and though the well of superlatives is bone dry when it comes to Cocoa Beach’s finest export, yet again his performances demand they be searched for. It seems absurd, but the 19.8 Kelly put together to beat Mick Fanning in the final was not his finest performance of the day. It probably, and ridiculously, wasn’t his perfect 20 out of 20 to blow Sebastian Zietz out of the water either, though there is no doubt those two 10s will be what you see in the news bulletins, and rightly so.
The moments that most signaled Kelly’s domination were more nuanced than those a flaring Pacific pit provides, and they came in the first semi-final, the showdown with heir-apparent John John Florence. J-Flo had stormed through the early rounds, “nursing” his dodgy ankle and sticking mainly to threading long barrels as is the Prince of Pipeline’s wont. However, with anticipation mounting for the wonder heat, the ocean failed to cooperate, and for the first 20-minutes John sat and waited for the gems that would spit him into the channel shrouded in points. By the time those sets finally lurched over the horizon however, Kelly had stolen off on his own and found the critical sections needed to unleash his most beastly turns and bank a hefty lead in the process. Slater scored a 9.4 for a scary series of beyond vertical hammers that scythed sheets of spray to the sky, then backed it up with the maneouver of the contest on his next wave. Though this that netted him but a four, the message was clear: This is still my turf. One last exchange between the pair saw Kelly lock in a high-eight before John John struck back with a nuts barrel to almost-craziest-move-of-the-day balls out floater that blew apart both the kid and his hopes.
It isn’t that the turns won Kelly the contest, it’s that he’s the only guy on the planet who would even go for them (though JJF’s last ditch floater shows he’s taking notes…) and that commitment and execution make the man stand out. There are plenty of surfers in the Top 34 who can and do ride mind blowing barrels, hell, Jeremy Flores and Joel Parkinson are alongside Kelly in the Perfect 20 club, but the aggression with which Kelly went at the most serious of vert walls simply couldn’t be matched. Kelly isn’t afraid to get bounced, and he hit the reef today on a number of occasions, and it’s those times that make you think of the old Michael Jordan commercial where he talks about failing over and over. Then, you truly start to see that comparisons between other sports’ greatests and our own are so very worthy.
In the second semi-final, two world champs in Mick and CJ Hobgood squared off. It’s interesting to note three of the four semi-finalists were world champs, and the only other active title-holder, Joel Parkinson, was nudged by Mick in the quarters. This reinforces that that for all of its textbook quality, Cloudbreak still requires a hell of a lot of experience to tame. Mick and CJ had an good ol’ fashioned shootout, trading eights for eights then raising them to high-eights before Mick dug deep and claimed a nine at the death to win by less than a third of a point. The result could have gone either way, but with it favouring Fanning it turned the final into not only a battle for the trophy, but also the number one ranking.
After six heats of incredible action the two last men standing went at each other like cage fighters. Mick launched into the lead with a 9.2 on the opener for a long, long pipe. On the wave behind Kelly stood tall, arms outstretched through the first massive section before racing and weaving and gunning for a doggy door way down the line. On the other side of it waited a 10, but it wasn’t to be and he was clamped and ground into the coral. Not to worry, a minute later and without priority Kelly bunny-hopped into another rifling barrel, and the body language and claims and grins suggested the juggernaut was rolling. Before you knew it Mick was switching boards and Kelly was threading spitting section after spitting section and the main interest of the commentators was whether Slater’s 9.8 was better than his (fourth) perfect 10. With 10 minutes remaining Mick was comboed, and despite fighting to the end, and maybe getting lowballed on a six, it seemed the die had been cast long before the buzzer sounded.
Kelly Slater is, yet again, and seemingly for as long as he decides to keep returning to Tavarua, the Volcom Fiji Pro champion. All the rest of us can do is stand, applaud and soak up the show.