With the biggest waves of summer came surfing's biggest stars, and none more luminous than Kelly Slater, a six-time world champion from Cocoa Beach, Fla., who is leading the tour in search of an unprecedented seventh title.
Right behind him is Andy Irons, the reigning and three-time world champion from Kauai, hoping to gain on his rival as the World Championship Tour heads deeper into its home stretch.
Both were in peak form at Lower Trestles in San Clemente on Friday, when the faces of some of the waves exceeded 12 feet. Displaying mastery and balance, Slater easily dispensed of Dane Reynolds, then watched as Irons, showing equal brilliance, eliminated Guilherme Herdy in Round 3 of the Boost Mobile Pro, the eighth of 11 events on the WCT, the only one in Southern California.
Thus, the stage is set for another possible showdown in Sunday's final. They went head to head last weekend in Japan, Irons winning in the closing moments.
"It's healthy, alive and well," Irons said of his rivalry with Slater, competitive surfing's most successful athlete.
After a day off today, the contest will resume Sunday morning and culminate with the afternoon final in waves that are forecast to be only slight smaller than Friday's.
The way both surfed in Round 3, that showdown may be imminent. Slater, 33, who won his first pro contest at Trestles in 1990, posted a 9.87 out of a possible 10 on his first wave against Reynolds.
After a hard bottom turn and a sharp vertical top turn, Slater launched and landed an aerial that drew cheers from the crowd and clearly impressed the judges. He later added an 8.0, giving him a two-wave score of 17.87. Against Herdy, Irons, 27, registered a 7.0 and took control with a 9.5, largely on the merit of a long floater on the lip of an enormous right-breaking wave. Afterward, Slater, who called Irons "an amazing surfer," hinted that he might cut back on tour appearances next year, whether he wins the title or not. "There are other things I'd like to do," he said.
That would leave Irons in prime position to mount an assault on Slater's title record. But first things first, said Irons, who has won the last three titles. He trails Slater in points, 6,374 to 5,796.
"Hopefully he'll slip and I'll make it interesting," Irons said of the title race.
There should be no shortage of interest Sunday.
Among Southland surfers advancing were Timmy Reyes of Huntington Beach and Taylor Knox of Carlsbad. Knox, with his mother watching from the beach, survived a broken board -- and the time it took to come in and get a backup -- to get past Australia's Lee Winkler, 16.50 to 12.70.
Knox, 34, is one of the oldest surfers on a tour filled with increasingly younger and unfamiliar faces, but says he has no plans to retire.
"I'll do it for a couple more years. I still have my good friend Kelly on tour," he said of Slater. "Hopefully he stays inspired and sticks around."