”That was full Michael Jordan for three with half a second on the clock,” replied the commentator, moments after the five judges had recorded their scores. It was every bit the accurate comparison.
With less than a minute remaining in the finals of the Hurley Pro at Lower Trestles, the distinct bumps of an incoming set appeared in the distance. The two remaining competitors, a perennial world champion and a highly-touted young Australian, began to paddle.
“I think there's an energy around [the wave at Lowers], I really do,” said Pat O'Connell, the contest director, an hour after the decisive exchange. “I think there's energy when the sets come.”
The energy was almost tangible. It began with whistles from the VIP section, and soon enough people on the beach were rising to their feet to get a view of what critical decision was about to be made by the most capable of competitors, the 10-time world champ, Kelly Slater.
To everyone's surprise, Slater let the first wave, all of five-feet on the face, pass him by. Owen Wright needed an 8.31 (out of 10) in order to pass up the reigning king and claim the contest title.
“I got ahead of Owen on that [earlier] exchange by taking the first wave and then I got priority,” said Slater, after the final, “so it left the decision up to me, which in the end I wasn't sure I was happy with because the final decision was a tough one, but it did work out.”
Wright responded on the righthand wave, beginning with a backside aerial, followed by a pair of lip-hits and a couple wrapping turns. An 8.87 and the lead, he would learn later.
But just behind him, Slater too had found a wave with the scoring potential he needed. Unlike in New York the week prior, where the pair had also met in the final, Slater's board didn't literally split beneath his feet. He began with a powerful layback gouge, sending a wall of water several feet in front of him, followed by several more fast, gouging turns. In the end, he put his two hands up as if too say “we'll see if that was enough.”
While Wright stood at the waterline, his eyes locked on the judges booth, Slater retreated to the competitor's area, joining his entourage in viewing the TV screens to see what the judges had decided. Wright's score came first, momentarily giving him the lead. Then the scores for Slater began to drop–a 9.0–and the title was decided. There way Kelly, both arms raised to the sky, another win closer to an unprecedented 11th world title.
Slater finished with 17.5 points out of 20, Wright with 16.74. And Slater was $105,000 richer.
Afterward, Wright and Slater shared smiles, both in equal awe of what had transpired: three straight finals match-ups. It had never been done before in ASP competition. Slater won in Tahiti, Wright in New York. Now Slater, once again.
Wright had nothing but praise for Slater in defeat. Just midway through his second year on the Tour, New York was Wright's first win, so coming down from that high was troublesome.
“You just won, but you're back in Round 1,” Slater said with a laugh, speaking from a bit of experience.
While his lock on the No. 1 spot in the rankings is substantial, Slater isn't letting his gaze get too far ahead toward that 11th title.
“There's a lot of work still to be done,” said Slater, referring to the four remaining contests. “Theres a lot of decisions and choices, and waves to be ridden between now and then. Until we get through at least 2 more contests you wont see how things are going to shake out.”
“[Skipping the Jeffrey's Bay contest] was a tough decision, you know,” he said. “I was hungry [for amazing waves] and I had to fill my belly, and I went there and had 9 days of belly-filling. It was amazing.”
We'll have to assume, at the point, he's in it to win it.