RACE IS ON Mick and Kelly Keep Things Exciting

Alone in a white tent reserved for competitors, tucked quietly away from all the weirdness that is the Bakio surf scene, Mick Fanning began his day watching heats and methodically going through his pre-surf routine. His trademark oversized, noise-canceling headphones on, wearing a thick winter coat with the hood pulled down over his brow, Fanning studied not just the lineup and what the waves were doing on the drained-out low tide, but more telling, he was making mental notes of the scores the judges were surrendering. As his heat drew closer he began to loosen up, first going through a series of stretches that surely would have snapped any normal man's hamstrings, then came the exercise ball. Standing on the ball, he went through a series of squats and other movements simulating what he'd soon be doing in the water. It's become clich to say that Fanning's the most fit man on tour, but what's hard to see unless you study his routine is how absolutely focused and determined he is—like he's some kind of Zen warrior or something. And with every heat he makes it through, that goal of being the first Australian world champ since Occy in 1999 gets that much closer.

“In the end the only person I'm surfing against is myself." – Mick Fanning PLAY FANTASY SURFER

But don't think for a minute that the only two guys capable of squelching Fanning's plan—Taj Burrow and Kelly Slater—had any intention of letting him just walk away with it. Although, if you'd watched Slater's round three heat this morning you may have thought otherwise. Until the dying moments of his heat against wildcard Tiago Pires Slater almost looked dead in the water. Unable to put together the moderate score that he needed to live to fight another day. With a minute on the clock he looked like he was ready to concede the race. But then you don't win nine titles by being a pushover, and being the competitive freak that he is, he found a medium-sized wave and put together a combination of backhand hacks that got him through.

"I think that really woke me up there at the end," Slater said after his heat. "I've been kind of tired lately, it takes a lot of work to stay in the game, and I've felt a bit jetlagged lately, but I think that pressure there at the end got my attention and hopefully I can start building some momentum."

After Slater's narrow victory, Fanning surfed and made short work of Hodei Collazo, besting the local hero, in large part thanks to racking up a 9.67, the highest wave score of the contest thus far. Not long after it was Burrow's turn to apply the pressure, and even if he was wearing a florescent green wetsuit, his attack was fast, explosive, and unrelenting. As if he didn't get everybody's attention with his ode to '80s fashion, Burrow punted a massive backside air, riding out of it and into the next round at the expense of Aritz Aranburu, another Spanish wildcard.

Another notable emerging from round three was CJ Hobgood, who after more than a shaky start the first have of the year has turned it on as of late, and undoubtedly, has to be considered a favorite going forward. Also breaking out of his funk, Phil MacDonald put on an impressively powerful performance and is well on his way to his best result of the year.

Most contests would have called it a day after round three wrapped up, but seeing as this event's been absolutely starved for waves, organizers made the call to push on and into the first five heats of round four. After sticking a gigantic alley-oop, Bobby Martinez would sail to an easy win over Bernardo Miranda. Phil MacDonald let the good times roll over Joel Parkinson, and Taylor Knox was quick to dispatch Victor Ribas, who'd previously eliminated Andy Irons and Tom Whitaker. Then came two of the most important heats: Mick Fanning vs. Luke Stedman and Kelly Slater vs. Adriano De Souza. Fanning got going early, flustering Steds and never looking back.

Fanning would leave the beach halfway through Slater's heat. "I don't need to watch," he'd say. "I just need to stay within myself and keep doing what I'm doing. In the end the only person I'm surfing against is myself."

As darkness fell over the Bakio beachbreak it appeared Slater had regained the form he's so famous for. De Souza stood little chance as Slater slipped into the familiar rhythm that's carried to so many victories.

The swell's not looking too hot for the last three days of the waiting period, which means the Billabong Pro Mundaka will more than likely wrap up without actually surfing a single wave at the famed lefthander. Such is life on the ocean I guess, but one way or another it's going to be an exciting finish.