The cliffs at Winki Pop were stacked and no rock or source of elevation was left unclaimed. It didn’t matter that the surf was three-foot, onshore dribble, Kelly Slater was surfing, and on current form there was every chance it could be the second last heat he ever competed in at Bells. Whether he continued on the path of a slow-moving train wreck, discovered the fountain of youthful performance or wound up somewhere beige and in the middle people were going to watch.

For the locals, interest levels were further spiked by the presence of junior prodigy, Xavier Huxtable. At 16 he is 31 years younger than Kelly. Over the speakers, veteran caller, Reggae Ellis, suggested Xavier might be the best surfer to ever come out of Torquay – big props. Behind the scenes tension was heightened by the fact that former Bells finalist, Adam Robertson, was Xavier’s regular coach and had been working with Kelly during the Quiksilver Pro. (Adam made it clear to Tracks that he was not working with Kelly for the Rip Curl Pro, Bells ).   

Local knowledge seemed to pay dividends for Huxtable early on as he scooped into a couple of inside runners from the Uppers section of the Winki Pop line-up. A 5.1 in the first moments of the heat saw the natural footer fluently linking solid turns like a Winki’ regular who knew how to connect the dots in a tricky lineup fraught with flat spots. From up above you could see Kelly anxiously craning his neck towards Huxtable as he zipped down the line from deep inside.

Kelly sat much wider and adopted a very patient approach for the opening phase of the heat, perhaps reasoning that he needed to be on the best waves against fly-boy Filipe and the youthful Huxtable. You could imagine him being a contender in flawless six-foot Winki or big Bells, where there was an opportunity to hold the rail and use that patented front-side slash, but in three foot mush against fleet-footed opposition the odds against him stretched. “They’re not going to send Kelly out in this are they,” I’d commented to someone earlier in the day. But sure enough they had and if nothing else the decision to go with round one proved that no one was cutting Kelly any special deals when it came to calls on conditions.

Earlier in the week Kelly was gushing to the press about how inspired he was by Tiger Woods' comeback win in the US Masters. “That’s why the timing was so good, for me to see Tiger do that this week. I have people telling me every single day ‘It’s time to retire’,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald. 

For a while it looked like Kelly would never even tee off in round one as he waited for a wave. Eventually he got off to a shaky start, failing to post a score beyond a five in his first six waves. Kelly still looked out of synch. You could see he was looking for the big rail gouge, but often the crumbling Winki lip would force him into a late snap. Frequently the end result was a low-scoring half turn on his opening manoeuvre. On another wave Kelly chased down a non-existent section when he should have committed to two big turns. Admittedly the waves were fickle and sub-par, but while Kelly’s surfing had potential his read and manoeuvre selection looked just a little off.

Toledo had spent the morning entertaining the grommets with his gymnastics down on the Jan Juc beachbreaks and by the time he pulled on a singlet he was ready to rumble in the crumble. Winki Pop has similarities to J-bay (where Filipe has won twice) and with frothy lips, ample down the line speed and a light onshore breeze, Toledo had all the necessary ingredients to fly. His position was further enhanced by the increasing consistency of the swell. Toledo can struggle when wave quantity is scarce, but if he can continually chip in to lumps the law of averages suggests he will eventually land something ludicrous. Fil bent his rubberman rig through finessed carves to put himself in a commanding position, but as his confidence grew he went to the air in ostentatious fashion, posting an 8.27 to finish the heat a definitive winner.

It was left to Kelly and Xavier to fight for second and the all-important progression to round three. Truth be told Huxtable had the waves to shut the gate on Kelly, but he fell on a series of final manoeuvres that might have given him the half a point extra he required to progress. Perhaps he was so surprised to be in front of the best surfer ever that he tripped at the final hurdle.

Xavier Huxtable tail-high in a free surf at Winki Pop. Photo: Steve Ryan

Kelly had to scrap and prove he hadn’t become an orchid – someone who only thrives in perfect conditions. With less than five minutes remaining Kelly still required a 5.6 when he scrambled into a mid-size runner. After negotiating a hand grenade of white-water he found enough open face to embellish the turns and destroy the giant-killing dreams of a local grommet. This was Kelly winning dirty, doing whatever he had to do to survive and it indicated that he has enough fight and humility to play hard for second.    

Post heat Adam Robertson would probably be telling Xavier Huxtable he did everything right bar keeping his head on the final manoeuvres. Psychology not surfing let him down. Meanwhile for Kelly the signs are better but he still looks like he needs to get off the golf course and spend as much time in the water as he can, if he wants to pull off a comeback on a Tiger Woods scale. As for Toledo – if conditions remain mid-sized, consistent an onshore, his odds of making it to the finals are significantly improved.