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Three events left, the homestretch of the ASP World Tour. And by the looks of the preliminary surf forecast, the Rip Curl Pro Portugal could very well kick off this weekend in some high-grade conditions. Surfline's calling for a robust northwest swell to start filling into Peniche on Sunday, bringing the surf at Supertubos up to the five- to eight-foot zone by the end of the day. It then fills in further on Monday as the waves possibly top out at 10 feet. All this with light winds and favorable conditions. What better setting for Kelly Slater to all-but put a lock on his record eleventh world title?
A quick look at the numbers shows Slater well out in front of Owen Wright, and with a nearly insurmountable lead over Joel Parkinson. The race breaks down like this: currently Slater is sitting on three first place results, a second and two fifths (he's throwing away a no-show and a thirteenth), while Wright is holding a first, two seconds, two fifths and a ninth (and currently throwing away two thirteenths). Translation: if this is really going to be a "title race" Slater's going to have to have some uncharacteristically bad results while Owen sweeps the next couple events. Slater, a bad result in overhead, offshore barrels? Not going to happen.
It is worth nothing, that while just in his sophomore season on tour, Wright does have three years of experience under his belt at Supertubos. In 2009 he was given a wildcard into what was then the Rip Curl Search. Unfortunately, he also suffered one of the worst injuries of his career there when he suffered a broken eardrum and tweaked neck after a particularly harsh wipeout. He'd spend the rest of the year rehabbing and miss the entire Hawaiian season. But to Wright's credit, the injury only strengthened his resolve, and as he's demonstrated at places like Tahiti and France, he'll pretty much pull into anything. Needless to say, the Slater/Wright battle should make things quite interesting in Portugal.
But there are more than just two surfers in the event, and others worth paying some attention to would be Julian Wilson, Gabriel Medina, and especially Jordy Smith. Wilson wants to win an event so bad it hurts. He was well on his way in California before the interference with Wright set him back in the semis. He got even closer in France, but 17-year-old Medina stepped up and in just his second contest as a World Tour surfer he took the top spot on the podium. Hard to say if the wave in Portugal really fits Wilson's approach, but he did win a Prime contest here earlier in the year, so the waters are relatively familiar.
And it will be interesting to see if Medina can keep pace. Given the forecast, the waves are going to have a little more push, which could potentially hinder his aerial act. This will be his first event in quality, overhead surf, and it'll be interesting to see how he reacts. Seems Brazilians have a natural affinity for surfing in Portugal, and with his sponsor Rip Curl hosting the event, he should be well looked after.
|What rivalry? Oh, that one. Slater and Wright, ready to mix it up in Portugal.|
Meanwhile, the wind was taken out of Smith's sails this year when he ruined his ribs in Tahiti. But he showed flashes of brilliance upon returning to action in France, and made the quarters as a result. He took second in Peniche last year, and the big South African's anxious to get back to his winning ways. Look for him to do some damage.
The "old" guard of Parko, Taj Burrow and Mick Fanning should factor in, but hard to figure where their heads are at. Fanning's suffered some devastating early-round loses recently, and while he's a competitor any time he paddles out, one has to wonder without the allure of a world title to chase, will he be mailing it in the rest of the year? Parko probably still reckons himself in the world title race, and numerically that may be true, but he's almost 15,000 points behind Slater, which is quite a gap to make up. And Burrow, he's probably still wishing Brazil was at the end of the year. Between Portugal and the upcoming events in San Francisco and Hawaii, there's a lot of paddling left, and less and less opportunities for fins-free tail blows. Not to write any of those guys off, any one could very easily ride away with a victory, but the kids on tour are catching them quickly.
All told, should be a great start to the event. Stay tuned for complete reportage from the beach throughout the week.