World Title Race Tightens For J-Bay Open

Cestari/ASP

Spending the past month in Fiji, Kelly Slater may have logged more water time than anybody on tour recently. Spurred by his uncharacteristic stumble in Fiji (which resulted in him relinquishing his No. 1 ranking), Slater looks at J-Bay as a chance to get back the ASP pole position and prove any would-be doubters wrong. If there's one thing we know about Slater, it's that he loves a good challenge.

If you're a regular-foot, Jeffreys Bay is one of those waves you hope to surf at least once in your life. The South African right is the gold standard that all other point breaks are measured by for its speedy, ruler-edged lines. J-Bay dropped off the world tour stage in 2011, but the new ASP wisely brought it back into the fold this year as part of an effort to resurrect the "Dream Tour" concept.

Veteran winners like Kelly Slater, Mick Fanning and Joel Parkinson will have the advantage as the spot tends to suit the surfers that know it best. J-Bay has a funny way of exposing flaws in technique, and it's been hard on rookies over the years. The wave runs fast, but it requires a more patient, thoughtful approach than other beach and reef breaks on tour that call for quick-twitch reflexes. Tom Curren, a model of style and flow, tuned right into J-Bay's rhythms on his first wave there in 1992, and while the times have changed, the fact remains that no one today surfs it better than Curren did back then.

But young surfers like world No. 1 Gabriel Medina, along with wunderkind John John Florence, are hoping to change that. They have been on tour only since the fall of 2011, so this will be their first time competing in a WCT at J-Bay, but perhaps they will channel their inner Curren and show an innate affinity with the spot right away. Chances are they won't: The last surfer to win the event on his first try was Parkinson in 1999.

Jordy Smith grew up in Durban, South Africa, and knows the wave as well as anyone else on tour. His smooth yet powerful approach earned him WCT wins at J-Bay in 2010 and 2011. He's had an up-and-down year so far and a controversial judging call at Bells Beach, where he was denied a 10 for what was arguably the best wave ridden all year. A win at his favorite spot would vault him up from his current 11th-place ranking to a level more commensurate with his talent.

"When I got the news that Jeffreys was returning to the schedule this season, I basically ran around my house screaming for 30 minutes," said Smith in a pre-event press statement to the ASP. "It's a special wave for me personally and has been intertwined with my career since I can remember. The level of surfing on tour this season has been ridiculous. If there are waves, we're going to see some crazy stuff go down."

Slater and Michel Bourez also have something to prove in South Africa. Another strong result from Bourez, combined with an early-round exit from Medina, would put him in the number position with his home break of Teahupoo looming next on the schedule. Slater, on the other hand, shook off the disappointment of losing to Bourez in small waves at Tavarua by staying on the island for a month after. Look for the 42-year-old to be rested and recharged at J-Bay -- a place where he's won three times and scored some of the best waves of his life.

Sharks and sandbars are also on the minds of every surfer competing. Taj Burrow and Mick Lowe both reported seeing great whites patrolling the lineup during heats in years past. A shark killed a swimmer in 2013 at The Point section of the wave, and a 15-foot beast cleared the lineup last month. Yet while the shark news scares, the new sandbar excites. Early-season swell has pushed sand across the rocks at the Impossibles section of the wave, making its rifling tubes much more possible to make. The judges this year have been slow to give out 10s, but look for the perfect scores to start dropping fast if a big swell hits during the waiting period, and long, draining barrels are the order of the day.

The whole of the Indian Ocean has been experiencing an amazing run of surf for the past few weeks, and that includes South Africa. The only drawback is the fear that the relentless run of low-pressure systems that form in the "Roaring 40s" will take a break during the event's waiting period. If that's the case and the contest is held in small or sloppy waves (as it has a few times over the years) then all bets are off and J-Bay may not look so dreamy after all.

Currently Surfline.com, the official forecaster of the event, are reporting that "medium-size SW swell will prevail for the first day of the contest waiting period (Thursday, July 10), with a fading trend into the weekend."

After that, it's anybody's guess what's going to happen.

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