There are no sleepers when it comes to Round 1 heats these days, especially with the new early elimination format. And looking at what's lined up for Day 1 of the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach, the most compelling heat in the draw may be Kelly Slater vs. Filipe Toledo vs. Xavier Huxtable in Round 1, Round 3. Griffin Colapinto had been seeded into the heat, but after aggravating an earlier knee injury, he's withdrawn from the contest, replaced by local grom and Rip Curl teamrider Huxtable.
Yes, defending event champ Italo Ferreira is going to do his thing in the Jeep Leader jersey and try to keep the good times rolling. And defending World Champ Gabriel Medina will be looking to bounce back after the sting of a Quarterfinal knockout at the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast. But it's the heat featuring Slater, Toledo and the 16-year-old Victoria local that will come with both fireworks and intrigue.
There's currently a big question mark next to the 11x World Champ's name at the moment. Knocked out in Round 2 at the Quik Pro to start the season, the loss was a huge wake-up call for Slater, who appeared to be adjusting to the Tour life after struggling with a nagging foot injury. Stung by the defeat, he made no secret that he had to get his head back in the game and bee line it to Bells.
"I got a couple weeks now to think about it," Slater said after his loss at Dbah. "If there are some waves at Bells this week I might be able to sneak down there and get my free surfs out of the way without people, without battling all of the guys on Tour."
According to sources, Slater has teamed up with perennial Bells Bowl maestro Adam Robertson to help him prepare for the Rip Curl Pro. In 2009, Robbo finished runner-up to Joel Parkinson as a Wildcard at Bells. In 2011, he received another Wildcard slot, but lost to Slater in Round 1 and Jordy Smith in Round 2. He'll be a valuable corner man for Slater as he looks to get his bearings and boards dialed.
Given the outlook on the surf forecast, if the contest ends up moving locations, that could also prove a challenge for Slater. He's got a stellar record on the Bells Bowl, winning four Titles between 1994 and 2010. Slater will be in luck however should the contest relocate to Johanna, a wave that suits his surfing much better than the other back-up spot of Winkipop.
Through the back half of 2018, while he continued to rehab his foot, Slater took Toledo under his wing and helped guide him through his World Title campaign. By the time the Pipe Masters came around, Slater was fully in Toledo's camp -- until they met up in Round 3 and Slater knocked Toledo out of the contest and the World Title race.
"I've been kind of helping Filipe a little bit, just a few tips here and there, and I'm a little bummed I'm against him, but that's life," Slater said from the beach at Pipe.
Toledo will also be going into Bells looking for a statement-making result. Losing to John John Florence in Round 4 at the Quik Pro wasn't what Toledo had in mind to start off the season, especially with his aerial advantage in Dbah's puntable beachbreak conditions. If he can make it to Finals day, he'll be looking good to reassert himself back into the early-but-still-exciting World Title conversation.
And let's not forget the Australian grom Huxtable, who's second place finish at the Rip Curl Pro Trials landed him a replacement spot for Colapinto and the chance to face off against Toledo and the GOAT. Just imagine if the teenage shredder knocked out either of the veterans in Round 1 ... Slater is nearly three times his age.
Of course, this is only one heat. Sure, it's a great heat, but there's going to be a whole lineup of men and women that will command our attention when the conditions turn on.
Watch the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach live April 17-27 on Worldsurfleague.com, App and Facebook.