This morning a super-keen Kelly Slater was up for an early surf on a beachy to get in tune for his first heat back in a WCT jersey. Over the past few days Kelly has been busy test-driving boards, trying airs and recruiting advisors like Adam Robertson (former Bells Finalist) to man the camera and provide feedback. According to Travis Lee, Kelly’s long standing board consultant and the lynch pin in Kelly’s KS designs company, Kelly is ‘All-in’ this year.

Trav was down on the beach at D’bah looking over a blustery lineup where Kelly was due to do battle with Italo Ferreira and Yago Dora. Lee was adamant that while Kelly might have dipped one toe in the WCT in years past, this time round he is completely committed – no sideways exits from events if things don’t go his way or a swell pops up at a favourite wave.          

Against the Brazilian, goofy-foot flyers there was always a chance that Kelly would get blown away in the five-foot D’bah ramps, however the heat was slow to get started.

Slater looked silky and confident as he grooved down the line and arced through turns. We even saw his famed, carving 360 make a cameo. Kelly looked on point and comfortable with the equipment beneath his feet. He may be aging, but his frontside rail carve remains a timeless surfing treasure.

However, the sections Kelly was presented with were way too slopey for his turns to tickle the fancy of the judges. Kelly’s best wave, a seamless arc backed up by a well-timed lip assault, didn’t break a six. To the untrained eye it looked as if perhaps he was a little unlucky not to be nudged a little higher.

Eventually a reinvented Dora found the launch pads and the landing gear on the lefts, while a dynamic Italo did enough to hustle the all-important second place (first and second move straight to round three).

Despite the loss, Kelly was still upbeat after the heat and showed every sign of being 100% invested in the 2019 world tour. When we asked him if he still felt like he was a genuine contender, he didn’t flinch before firing back a response.

“Oh yeah, absolutely. I know where the level’s at. I don’ think it’s unattainable. There was some great surfing that happened on tour last year. There were moments that were only attainable for maybe that guy who was doing that surfing – I look back at John John at Margarets even earlier and I can’t imagine anyone touching him or Italo at Keramas last year was pretty astounding. But a lot of the contests, you put in the work, you stick with and you believe in yourself. You watch a guy like Willian (Cardosa) who nobody expects to win a contest come out of nowhere and win at Ulu’ against a bunch of goofy footers and that’s pretty amazing. You put the work in and things can go your way.”

That encyclopaedic, surfing memory of Kelly’s was quick to point out that the first contest is not always the be all and end all. “It’s the first contest. It’s the first heat … I’m not going to put any stress on myself about it. My year I won my first world title I had like a 31st in the first contest of the year… I’ve also won world titles from winning the first event. That’s not really the cause of winning a world title but it’s good to get your confidence up earlier than later.”

Asked whether he was ready to go punt for punt with the springboks on tour, Kelly was both positive and pragmatic.

“Almost two thirds of the way through the heat I was going to go find the lefts that Yago was on and just go for airs… I’ve been working on some backside airs last week, but to be honest I haven’t don any airs in about a year and a half. I’m definitely playing catch up with those guys… I’d put those guys in the top five air guys in the world.”

Kelly did concede that his chances of success would probably improve if the contest moved back to one of the points.

“It (the move) is disappointing for me. There’s so much more of a luck factor here and a big ball-park to deal with.”

When quizzed about whether or not he felt the judges had been a little tough on his more traditional approach, Kelly wasn’t game to be drawn into any quick self assessments.“I don’t know if they were I’d have to compare it with other guys and stuff… My best wave, that long right that I had, I started off nice and I had a good pace to it but then it got sort of feathery and I couldn’t tell whether to hit it or carve and I was sort of stuck between the two on every turn I did.”

Did he like the new format that had just delivered him into a sudden death round two? “I thought there should be some kind of bonus to the first round… Half the guys that get third in the first round are going to be out of the contest in round two. That does put a little bit of importance on that first heat. If the waves were really good you wouldn’t really care about losing that first heat because then you get to surf a bunch more waves… it’s just a mind game really… it feels like the pressure comes up fast, but now at least there’s an incentive to getting second in that first round. ”

Win loose or draw the Coolangatta masses will be back to watch Kelly in sudden death round two and the webcast numbers will sky-rocket. Fans are acutely aware that this may be their last chance to see him live and can’t get enough. Meanwhile his fellow competitors won’t be granting any concessions. They know that wily old Kelly will seize on any weakness. Hopefully the conditions comply and we have a chance to see him at his best, challenging younger surfers to dig deep against the greatest surfer ever.