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Slater battles being surf-bored

The 14-year veteran admits waning interest, hints at retirement even as he closes in on his ninth world title.

September 07, 2008|Pete Thomas | Times Staff Writer

What's truly remarkable about Kelly Slater, in the twilight of an extraordinary pro surfing career, is his level of performance and success in relation to his level of enthusiasm.

"I'm not sure sometimes what's in the tank," concedes the eight-time world champion, who is in his 14th year on the Assn. of Surfing Professionals World Tour. "Even at events I can't seem to feel very motivated or inspired till I get in the water."

Once immersed, the power surfer from Cocoa Beach, Fla., seems to develop supernatural powers: the ability to carve artsy turns on sheer faces of fast-breaking waves; to outrun sections that for others become pounding closeouts, and to emerge from deep within cavernous barrels like a magician escaping a chest strung with chains and locks.

Slater, 36, is among 48 surfers who will compete in the Boost Mobile Pro at Lower Trestles in San Clemente. The event begins today and could run through Saturday.

Slater arrives comfortably atop the rankings and closing rapidly on a ninth world championship.

Recently hinting at retirement but always showing up, he is like tar on the feet of Australia's top stars, who had hoped by now to have established a dynasty for their Down Under faithful.

Says Wayne "Rabbit" Bartholomew, a former world champion and an Australian who presides over the ASP:

"In my opinion Kelly Slater is right up there with the best of the best, such as Tiger Woods, Michael Schumacher, Michael Jordan, [Muhammad] Ali, [Pete] Sampras, [Rod] Laver, [Roger] Federer, Lance Armstrong, Michael Phelps. . . .

"I actually consider Kelly's feats greater than most because of the versatility required to accomplish these achievements in the ocean. The playing field has no white lines and Kelly has had to tune in to these elements to succeed."

One would have to be a surfer to understand the difficulty of competing in heat after heat in pounding surf and waves that change from contest to contest, day to day, and with every tide swing -- and to regularly triumph.

Slater claimed his first surfing championship in 1992. He won five in a row in 1994-98, then took a two-year hiatus, citing burnout and boredom.

Since returning he has admittedly been halfhearted on tour, most years. Yet he won titles in two of the previous three years, has won four of six contests this year, and could be crowned a ninth time as early as the next contest in France.

Seemingly, he views title No. 10 as something he can finally hang his competition jersey on.

"I think just the idea of double digits seems like a nice, wrapped-up package," Slater acknowledges.

His retirement, whenever it comes, will be a relief and a bummer for others, for reasons stated by Bede Durbidge, who is ranked No. 3.

"It would be insane to beat him while he's still on tour because it would make the win so much better," Durbidge says. "But also he is making it so much harder to win."

Durbidge, 25, who upset Slater in the final of the 2006 Boost Mobile Pro, is one of four Australians ranked in the top five.

Ranked No. 2 is Joel Parkinson, who needs a victory and a poor finish by Slater to significantly close the gap.

"Kelly is the form surfer this year and rightfully well in front," Parkinson says. "That doesn't mean I am going to sit on my laurels and hand it to him."

Slater has made the final of the Trestles contest the last four years, winning last year and in 2005. "It feels like home for me in many ways," he says.

The surfer candidly cites weariness of tour travel, and monotonously long waiting periods between contest swells.

This year he has a new girlfriend who has "been a huge factor helping to push me to do as much as I have."

That includes the filming of "Ultimate Wave," a large-budget production scheduled to launch in IMAX and other large-screen theaters in the fall.

The movie, directed by Stephen Low, will deliver Slater, on expedition away from the tour, seeking the ultimate wave, up close and personal to mainstream audiences.

"We're doing what we can to find the shots and get the camera close enough to make the experience as real as possible for the viewer," says Slater, who was filming in Tahiti last week, riding the same swell due to hit Southern California this afternoon.

Slater also is involved in a wave-pool project that "is the most exciting thing in my life right now on the work front," and he's just finishing a book, "Kelly Slater: For the Love" (Chronicle Books, $35).

More impressive is the saga of his competitive career, likely to be finished after next season, appropriately titled, "Ten."

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pete.thomas@latimes.com

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FYI

What: Boost Mobile Pro Presented by Hurley.

Where: Lower Trestles in San Clemente, within San Onofre State Beach.

When: Begins today and could run through Saturday.

Who: World's 45 top-ranked surfers, plus three wild cards.

Side notes: This is the only World Tour stop in the U.S. mainland. Kelly Slater is defending event champion.

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