"I needed that one," Kelly Slater said, a wave of relief washing over him.
After surfing 24 contests and 87 heats at Bells, a trouncing of Julian Wilson in the Round of 32 at the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach was just what Slater needed to bounce back from what, thus far, has been a wobbly start to the 2019 Championship Tour season for the 11x World Champ.
"Thirty years of competing and I finally needed some confidence," he said smiling in his post heat interview.
It was the first heat win of the season for Slater, who recognized that he desperately needed to put the pieces together if he wanted to remain at all relevant in the upper echelon of Tour competitors. With an Elimination Round exit on the Gold Coast, he admittedly came into Bells in a funk. However, through his freesurf sessions and clocking more time in the water, he's been looking better and better.
The spark was lit when he battled to advance over 16-year-old wildcard Xavier Huxtable in the Seeding Round. And in beating Wilson, who entered 2019 as a clear World Title contender, the King got a shot of adrenaline that could carry him deep into the Bells event, and perhaps, set him up for greater things later this season.
"I was thinking, and this is going to sound stupid, but I was thinking this is a World Title heat," Slater said. "If there's any talk of me getting back in the World Title hunt it wasn't going to happen if I lost that heat."
For Wilson, he now finds himself with his back squarely against the wall. Poor results on the Gold Coast and now Bells mean that if he's going to contend for a Title this year, he's going to have to surf lights out from here on out. He's already burned his throwaway results and will have to focus on making Quarters or better if he's going to be in the race when the Tour hits Hawaii in December. Bells appears to be a bit of an Achilles heal for Wilson, who's best event performane was a 3rd place finish againt Parko way back in 2014.
"I came down to Bells early to put some extra time in. I felt great. Boards felt great. Everything felt good. But one decision in that heat was the deciding factor," said Wilson, referring to a wave at the start of the heat that he passed on, which Slater scooped up. Slater would turn that wave into a 5.67 ride and Wilson was never really in the heat after that.
"It's a bummer when you don't get the opportunity to surf it out. I've had so many heats like that at the Bells Bowl. There's just something going on out there," Wilson pondered in disappointment.
With Slater's upcoming performance in the Round of 16 and solid swell continuing to hit the Bowl, the GOAT could be setting up for something truly historic. All of Slater's wins at Bells have come in high-quality conditions. The better the surf, the better he surfs.
He has almost three decades of experience on the Bowl, while his Round of 16 opponent, the Brazilian rookie Peterson Crisanto has none. Slater, the ultimate tactician, has to be relishing in the match-up. He looked well connected riding a 5'9" Dan Mann-shaped board in his win over Wilson and alluded to having some bigger lumber ready to go for the impending swell, including a half-joking threat to take out his friend's 7'1 twin fin.
"Tomorrow, we're going to be dodging bullets. I think choosing the right waves and positioning yourself right is going to be the difference" Slater said. "Surf-wise I don't think anyone looks like a giant favorite out here. I think this swell is going to be massive - it's just not super south. Who knows?"
One thing's clear, Slater's win over Wilson was a shot across the bow to all would-be World Title contenders. Be careful ... the old man isn't done yet.
Notable & Quotable From Day 3 of the Rip Curl Pro:
A pair of sevens was enough to carry defending Bells champ Stephanie Gilmore over Trials winner Kobie Enright in the Round of 16. "Between Bells and the Gold Coast - I haven't had a wave that's allowed me to really open up in a while. I found a good rhythm which was nice to have," said Gilmore.
"I haven't forgotten about last year. It stung when I lost in an early Round," said Lakey Peterson after dispatching fellow Rincon aficionado and Channel Islands team rider Sage Erickson. She'll now face Coco Ho in Quarterfinal Heat 1.
The standout for the men was, without question, Filipe Toledo. In a testy heat against fellow Brazilian Caio Ibelli, he confidently connected all the dots. "The Bells Bowl has such a big open face so you can really work with it. It shows who's good on the rail," said Toledo.