Life for Kelly Slater hasn't been easy lately. Sure he's got money, fame, an attractive girlfriend, an ageless body, and incredible talent, but that doesn't mean all the breaks go his way.
He came within a whisper of winning his 12th world title in 2012 and 2013 -- disappointments that burn inside his hyper-competitive soul. He looked sluggish in the first event at Snapper Rocks this year, going down to feisty nemesis Adriano DeSouza in the quarterfinals. Then came his shocking announcement on April 1, the eve of the Margaret River Pro, that he was leaving Quiksilver, his sponsor of the last 23 years.
Slater admitted that the experience has "felt like a divorce." But he shook off the distraction and posted a semifinal result in Western Australia. Then he made the quarters at the Rip Curl Pro at Bells Beach. Despite the consistent results, however, he never seemed like his ultra-focused self in Australia.
In Brazil, however, something happened. He finally beat DeSouza for the first time in six tries. He scored one of those "letting go" type of waves that have turned around his seasons in the past. His deep, late, no-hands backside pit in Rio wasn't as dramatic as the famous one from Tahiti in 2005, or any of his top scores from 2013's Pipeline Masters or this year's Volcom Pipe Pro, but it seemed to awaken something inside of him. He went down to Kolohe Andino in the semifinals, a kid he's known since he was in diapers, but came away satisfied with the result.
With upcoming events at Slater-friendly locations in Fiji, Jeffreys Bay, Tahiti, and Trestles, he now finds himself right where he wants to be -- Number 1 in the world.
It's hard to imagine a location that suits him more than Tavarua. The waves, the island, the people -- they fit him like a glove. It's the only place on tour where he can have his personal space and not be bothered with hordes of autograph seekers and picture-takers hounding him at every turn. There's nowhere else in the world where he feels more at ease. His results at the event are dominant. He's won it two years in a row since it came back on tour in 2012, and was the Fiji champion in 2008 and 2005 as well. He caught one of the best waves of his life in the finals last year -- and the fact that he fell at the end of it, will only motivate him more this time around.
What makes him so good at the island's marquee waves Cloudbreak and Restaurants? The first factor is his familiarity with the breaks. He's visited Tavarua two or three times a year every year since his first trip in 1992 when he was filming for "Kelly Slater: Black and White." The long, hollow, powerful Fijian waves are geared toward the strengths of his surfing -- deep, technical tube rides mixed with beyond vertical snaps in the pocket. No other surfer in the world, except perhaps John John Florence, looks as comfortable and in command when pulling in over shallow, sharp reefs -- the same reefs that last year shredded Travis Logie's back like a cheese grater and broke Glenn Hall's ride.
Slater said at Pipeline in December that he would have finally quit had he won the world title there. It's hard to imagine a better way to call it a career than to hoist the Pipe Masters trophy and a world title cup at the same time. He's been flirting with retirement since 2006, but look for him to make good on it this year if he can hold off the three generations of rivals that are stalking him.
The 42-year old Slater has been carrying persistent injuries for many years, but look for the warm Fijian waters to be the tonic that restores his body and carries him to victory yet again at his favorite island in the world.