It was billed as a career-defining heat. If Kelly lost, his decision to pursue another year on tour would again be questioned, but if he beat Julian Wilson, last year’s number two, then suddenly Kelly’s quest to be relevant over three decades would be granted instant validity. Meanwhile for Julian (as Kelly later pointed out) this was a heat with world title consequences. The WCT rulebook allows surfers to drop two results from the eleven contests they compete in. Losing would mean Wilson already had two scores that weren’t what the surfers generally refer to as ‘keepers’. His world title hopes would be hedged on his performance in the remaining nine events. While everyone talks about Kelly’s age, Julian is now 30. Few surfers have won a first world title in their 30s. Occy, Sunny Garcia and Parko are the only three who come to mind.          

Given it was the most hyped swell in WSL history, conditions weren’t as epic for this match up as we might have hoped. Kelly, it seemed, had the more realistic appreciation for what was actually happening in the lineup, seizing on a wave that Julian let slide through.

When they played Kelly’s Bells highlights reel there was a part of me that feared that was as good as it would get for Kelly – a montage of magic moments from the past while he floundered into the future. However, from the second he paddled in to his first wave, Kelly was knifing through the buttery blue walls like the smoothest of Olympic ice-skaters and fitting his oft-maligned epoxy blade perfectly into the nook of the Bells curl. Each precisely timed whack to the lip was like a little slap to the face of the doubters and naysayers and armchair experts suggesting he’s too old and his boards are all wrong. If you want to do some technical analysis watch the way Kelly drops the inside shoulder as he leans on a rail and arcs back to the pocket on his opening wave.This application of biomechanics allows him to transfer energy straight to the rail and turn more critically. Good form is timeless. While it was only awarded a 5.67 it was the sort of wave that made surfers in the forty-plus age bracket add another decade to their surfing lives. It is amongst this group that Kelly is most likely to find a legion of true believers. The only place the board looked vulnerable was in the white-water on cutbacks, where perhaps the lightness prevents it from carrying through the heavy foam that ices the Bells pocket. Kelly will be well advised to avoid getting to too caught up in the froth on his lighter craft.

On wave two a confident Kelly faded the bottom turn and introduced the controlled tail slide as he exited his turns. This was Kelly not over surfing but adding a point of difference and slightly higher degree of difficulty to his surfing. Of course the heat context determines the approach, however this is how heats are often won – by surfing a little bit better not necessarily a lot better. The judges rewarded him with a 6.17, aware that both surfers could deliver more.

Meanwhile Wilson never really showed up for a heat where it seemed he was spooked by the context. There was the tactical error of letting the first wave go and admittedly there weren’t many good waves, but a surfer of Julian’s caliber should have been able to make it more of a contest – even with the waves he caught. Instead he fell on multiple occasions, grew increasingly desperate and didn’t really find any rhythm until the final five minutes. Julian was obviously disgruntled and pointed to the lacklustre conditions but it’s to his own performance he will have to look if he wants to reignite his world title aspirations.

If Kelly can do similar surfing on bigger faces and hold the rail on whichever board he elects to ride then he will be a contender for the Bell. On a 5’9” that may prove difficult. He hinted at having a bigger board and joked he may ride Jack Perry’s 7’1” twin fin. That’s more likely Kelly playing his old mind-game tricks, feigning nonchalance and disguising his ruthless ambition. Whatever board he rides, the bigger conditions favour Kelly as it will reduce the competition to a rail-surfing joust. Booming Bells will also make it very hard for the flyboys to utilise their aerial weapons.

“I needed that one just for my confidence,” Kelly admitted after the heat.

Kelly is wearing his heart on his sleeve when it comes to his own doubts and insecurities, but that kind of honesty can be more dangerous than pretending everything is ‘all good’. If Kelly does grow in confidence and finds the optimal performance zone then we could see him put on a timeless display at Big Bells.

Wilson got a little spooked by the deified Slater, whoever comes up against Kelly will have to remind themselves they are up against a 47-year-old human not a God.