The World Title Continuum

An early exit for Slater in Portugal changes the pace in the 2012 title race

Kelly Slater has had better days. Photo: Joli

Raoni Monteiro--unsponsored, unfancied, surfing on one good leg and accompanied by an entourage of just himself--today tore a hole in the world title continuum. When the siren sounded he allowed himself a double fist pump. He'd done the one thing that could derail Kelly's seemingly inevitable 12th world title--beaten him early in the event and handed him a result that will sit unpleasantly in his kitty at the end of the year like a sardine hidden in a boardbag before a multi-leg, long haul flight. But before we talk world titles and Kelly Slater, before we talk about heats featuring seven-figure teenage prodigies, we need to talk about Raoni Monteiro.

You may remember him as the 30-year-old Brazilian journeyman who was sent out at 15-foot Cloudbreak earlier this year on "the day". He didn't balk. He didn't argue devil wind. He went and he surfed on a borrowed 8'0" with heart, so much so that when he found himself locked into a 12-foot wave on the inside reef, he didn't think twice about pulling into the thing. Depending on how you look at it, it was either a huge mistake or a blinding epiphany. The wave drove him into the coral and blew out his knee, but at the same time gave him fresh perspective.

"I'm not a big wave guy, not even, but when I get home to Saquarema after that and I walk into the room and all the guys I look up to over there they start clapping--all of them. They know it's big moment for me. I'm just so proud." Raoni opted to forego the cost and lost time a knee reconstruction would entail, and instead took to his dad's gym. He worked, got strong, started surfing again. He used the time off to drop his daughter at school--a tiny luxury the Tour doesn't usually afford him.

Raoni won't win the world title this year. He's unlikely to ever do so. But don't think Raoni cares about this game any less than Kelly Slater. Raoni is a big-hearted guy, respected and liked. He's the oldest Brazilian on Tour, but a guy central to the young Brazilian surge. Raoni's is another story from the street where you live, another story you may not have heard amongst the shouting.

While driving home yesterday from Nazaré--Portugal's big-wave mongo wedge an hour to the north of Supertubes--Pancho Sullivan and I mused how the rest of this season might roll out for Kelly Slater. Hypotheticals if you will. While we predicted Santa Cruz might present a few challenges for him--having only ever surfed one event there in 1994 and having been dispatched first heat--Pipe was as close to a guaranteed result as you could get. Disregarding his ancient history (three wins) his last four years there have yielded semis, semis, a final and a win, and the mere specter of him looming large in the rearview mirror of his world title competitors going into Pipe might be enough to spook them into jelly. As for here in Portugal, his results are again peerless, and it was assumed he'd roll through his quarter of the draw here with relative impunity. A win here in Portugal would all but seal the title.

But today we saw a vulnerability rarely seen, certainly not in the past three months anyway. Kelly showed up late to his heat. Ten minutes out, fashionably so. Nearly everyone else surfing today turned up two hours before to study what was a turgid and truly mad scene. There were rips within rips, no two waves broke in the same place. Those who studied it--i.e. everyone else--discovered that studying it was useless. You just needed to surf it. So in a way Kelly's late show made little difference to the result. He has two Achilles heels in this world title campaign--a rampant wildcard and bad waves. Today it was the latter, working in concert with a tattooed Brazilian who wasn't interested in a world title but more putting food on his kid's table. The waves in Kelly's heat were diabolically bad, and the whole affair was excruciating to watch, but world titles are often won ugly and this was a heat where Kelly needed to do just that. When he pin dropped from the lip in the dying seconds chasing a 6.5 that he never seemed destined to get, things suddenly got a whole lot more interesting and the mood of the place changed in a heartbeat. Like the weather, it went icy. Kelly's been roaming the competitor's area all week like a lion on the savannah, his body language implying that he was simply toying with the field. Today the mood changed, and his whole world title insouciance proved a facade when later interviewed he was able to quote with Pythagorean accuracy exactly how many ratings points his opponents were now sitting on.

With Kelly in the car headed back out to the airport via his rented house backing onto the golf course at Praia Del Rei, the hype machine trained it's full force on an unlikely meeting of the surfing planet's three most talked about kids. "Kids" may not technically cut it now as John John Florence ceased being the best teenage surfer in the world today when he turned 20, but his heat with Gabriel Medina and Kolohe Andino was a look at the vanguard of the new 2014 ZoSea tour, while a veritable promoter's dream for its current incarnation. Medina is living and surfing inside a video game at present. If he can dream it, he can do it. It's wild, and your correspondent will be very surprised if the kid doesn't win this whole damn thing some time tomorrow. Kolohe opened with a redeeming and enlightening forehand spinner. John John meanwhile failed to come out of two 10s, and had to be content with waxing Adrian Buchan later in the afternoon, setting up a world title momentum-shifter between he and Joel Parkinson tomorrow morning. If Joel wins, he becomes the new favorite. If John John wins it ensures his destiny is in his own very capable hands at Pipe. No silverware will change hands tomorrow, but a title might be decided nonetheless.

The other tectonic title shift came in the final heat of the day. Mick Fanning has been in the ratings position Mick Fanning enjoys most--the guy few have been talking about. The relative anonymity he's enjoyed--in the combined shadow of Sentimental Favorite Parkinson, Walking Deity Slater and Hot Rat Florence--was lit up brightly today when he opened against stablemate Owen Wright with a flurry of purposeful and beautiful rides. The waves by this stage looked like they belonged in a different dimension from the garbage served up in the morning. The place was firing on cue. Back in 2009 when Mick was last chasing a title, he drew Owen here in the semi finals, the then-kid going down with a busted eardrum and handing the soon-to-be-world champ a walk-through to the final that proved crucial. There would be no walk-through today, and certainly no laydown. Owen pulled into the day's thickest tube, a sand slab of the squarest order, and not only threaded it perfectly but tempted fate by fading to do so. It was a heat so perfect, the deciding moment came when Mick simply paddled for a wave he couldn't catch, handing priority to Owen which he duly used to catch the winner in the dying seconds.

Mick's fate was, in a way, sealed when he finished last in his three-man heat two hours earlier, less than a point separating first and last. By finishing last he drew Owen. If he'd finished second he'd have drawn Raoni. But, all things considered, who's to say Raoni wouldn't have produced the same result? Not us, certainly.

Although he may not be gunning for a world title, Raoni is still very capable of affecting the outcome. Photo: Joli

Good friends and world title frontrunners, Joel Parkinson and Mick Fanning, hoping to make good on an opportunity to further their lead over Slater. Photo: Joli

John Florence made his way to the quarterfinals today and shows no sign of slowing down. Photo: Joli