Is Kelly Slater still the best surfer in the world?

Kelly Slater best surfer in the world
You’re only as old as the bike you ride. Kelly in Puerto Rico in 2011. Photo: Timo

Is Kelly Slater still the best surfer in the world? Recent contest performances in Europe have made that question relevant for the first time in 20 years. On the face of it, you would think Kelly Slater’s recent European competitive leg was a disaster. In the two European events, in France and Portugal, the 11-time-world champion had opportunities to make up ground on the current world No. 1, Gabriel Medina. In both cases, though, Slater lost at the exact early stage the Brazilian did.

“This is probably one of my most frustrating title races ever because I keep feeling that I have the opportunity, and each time I keep dropping the ball,” Slater said after his shocking Round 3 loss in Portugal.

Despite the results, Slater is still in contention (albeit a long shot) for a world title with one event remaining, the Billabong Pipe Masters. To claim a 12th world title, he needs to win the event for a record eighth time and hope that his two rivals, Medina and Mick Fanning, lose early in the event.

Kelly Slater
Kelly locked in the green room in France a few autumns back. Photo: Timo

Over his 20-year career, it’s been a rare event to watch Slater “drop the ball.” He is surfing’s youngest, and oldest, world champion and has always prized his ability to capitalize on his competitors’ errors. Such was his frustration over his recent inability to do this, he was caught on camera smashing his surfboard into pieces in the competitors’ area after his loss in Portugal. “That is very rare for Kelly, that’s for sure,” Mick Fanning told GrindTV. “I have only seen him do that maybe three times in all the years I have been on tour. I guess it just shows you how much he still really wants it.”

Kelly Slater
Kelly, as always, on the edge in Tahiti in 2011. Photo: Timo
Kelly Slater 720
That 720 didn’t come by chance. Kelly has been working on them for decades. Photo: Timo
Kelly Slater quad fin
Kelly releases his quad fin, a design he helped reintroduce to the mainstream. Photo: Timo

Despite the poor competitive performances, Slater still managed to put himself at the center of the surfing universe with a series of incredible freesurfing displays. Indeed, while John John Florence was putting on a show in competition that led to him being compared to Slater back in the mid-1990s, when Slater won an incredible five consecutive titles, Slater was upping his game outside the competitive arena.

First, he performed surfing’s first ever 720 aerial maneuver, a move that has since been dubbed “the aerial heard around the world,” with Surfing magazine saying it “serves as a blatant reminder that he is still the best man to ever set foot on a surfboard.”

Second, a session at a notorious slab called the Cave had legendary water photographer Timo Jarvinen, who supplied all the shots, calling it some of the best surfing he has ever seen by the champ.

“It is the best stuff I’ve seen from neck deep in a very long time. To get a session like that, with the waves, the light, and the talent is very rare. I had one epic day with Kelly in Tahiti at the massive right in 2011, but this was up there with that,” he said.

Is it astounding to think that despite the poor contest results, Kelly was still able to put some freesurfing distance between him and surfers like Florence, who was only a few months old when Kelly won his first world title, and Medina, who wasn’t even born yet.

But the question remains: Is Slater still the best surfer in the world?

Maybe. But if he’s not, Slater still seems to think he can change that by getting even better. “I have a philosophy that surfing is like martial arts, where you keep learning and adding layers and keep getting better,” he told CNN recently. ” I want to surf better tomorrow, and when I am 50, I want to surf better than I am now.”

Kelly Slater 10 world titles
Kelly celebrates moments after winning his 10th world title, in Puerto Rico. Photo: Timo
Kelly Slater
Kelly looking back, for once. Photo Timo.

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