“I’d rather cry than laugh right now,” Kelly Slater told Rosy Hodge in his post-heat following a tough loss to Owen Wright and ‘CT rookie Peterson Crisanto. Although, to be fair, he was half cracking a smile as the words left his mouth.

Slater is the undisputed greatest competitive surfer of all time, holding a record for world title wins that will likely never be broken. But his nearly 30 years of World Tour accolades don’t change the fact that in 2019, Kelly Slater has become the underdog.

In some way, that fact feels like it may be the main force propelling him forward in this final season. Slater has always have a flair for drama, an appreciation for arc, and what could be a grander final act than a tired champion shaking off injury and putting together one last title run against all odds? It would be incredible to witness, no doubt, and we the surfing masses probably want it to happen only slightly less than Slater does (more on that here).

Today at Duranbah, however, Slater’s odds looked especially long. While his Round 2 opponents Owen Wright and Peterson Crisanto sat on the south end of D-Bah, trading mostly crumbly rights and working them thoroughly, Slater excused himself to the far north. It’s the kind of move that you’d imagine would have resulted in him conjuring some kind of freak tube for an excellent-range score a decade ago, but the magic was in short supply today. Slater hustled through some wonky rights for mid-range scores before racing a left and throwing a Hail Mary of a backside air. The maneuver certainly had the height to float him through to the next round, but in the howling winds he lost his board mid-rotation.

Throughout the heat, and his Round 1 performance yesterday, Slater seemed a bit stiff and out of sync. Comparatively, Wright and Crisanto looked loose and in tune with the Duranbah rollers today, with Wright stretching and contorting his large frame to push maximum spray through the lip, and Crisanto springing into an inverted grab-rail reverse like he couldn’t fall if he was blindfolded. Watching Slater surfing against the younger crop of ‘CTers, it’s hard to tell if his poor result can be chalked up as simply tough heats in meager conditions, or if they highlight something more fundamental about the spark in the 47 year old’s surfing compared to that of his much-younger competitors.

We are talking about Kelly Slater, however, a surfer who some thought had lost his touch by 2002 when he returned from a 3-year competitive hiatus to finish ninth in the world. Fifteen years and five world titles later, we’re still having that conversation, wondering if he can still win, hoping our skepticism just fuels him to prove us wrong.

One thing that’s for sure is that Slater cares about this year on Tour and wants it to mean something. Rosy Hodge saw that, too, and mentioned that she could tell he looked especially hungry this season.

“Yeah, well, I better get hungrier,” he replied.