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Sunday, September 9, 2012
Updated: October 14, 8:24 PM ET
The Portugal Puzzle

By Jon Coen
ESPN.com

Say au revoir to France and olá to Portugal, my friends. Leave your baguettes at the border and bring your appetite for sardinha assada. We're on to the next stop on the European leg of the ASP World Tour, the Rip Curl Pro Portugal.

While we can talk burgundy and vhino verde all day, the big question mark right now is the ASP title race, which is hotter than a Portugese chili pepper, particularly who's going to roll into the O'Neill Cold Water Classic like la gran fromage and who's going to arrive feeling like squid salad.

Here's the situation as it stands. Joel Parkinson is in the No. 1 spot, but Parko has yet to win an event this year. To be fair, he's made three finals and two semifinals, without a really bad result. The guy has never won a world title but has been runner-up four times and has rarely finished outside the top five since 2001. Last year, he made the quarters here, falling down to fourth place and out of contention. He wants that title so bad he can taste it -- more so than the caldo verde he had for lunch.

Close behind him is Kelly Slater, who isn't just winning events in his third decade of competitive surfing, but legitimately keeping professional surfing exciting. Make no mistake -- when the ASP 3.0 rolls out in 2014, many of the changes will have been influenced by Mr. Slater. He has 11 titles and his 360 air at Trestles and barrels in France proved he is still the most amazing human to put his feet in wax. Plus, in the post-Andy Irons rivalry years, Slater has been known tie things up by the eighth and ninth events.

Peniche
Coming into Portugal ranked No. 1, Joel Parkinson has been playing up the barrels at Supertubos. He seemed to like sharing this peak with Michelle Bourez last year.

In the No. 3 spot, some 3,200 points behind his good buddy Parko, is Mick Fanning. Fanning has two world titles and won in Portugal in 2009. He's already won at Bells and Teahupoo, possibly the two most opposite waves on the Tour. He can win anywhere. Fanning fell from No. 1 to No. 3 last week simply because he had the most unlikely wild-card draw in 10 years.

The only other surfer with a hope this year is John John Florence. The Hawaiian rookie-and-a-half came into France in the No. 3 slot and left in the No. 4 slot. But this place is called Supertubes, and hollow is his specialty. If Florence doesn't win a world title this year, he has next year or the year after that or any season in the next two decades. The key is to stay ahead of fellow youngster Gabriel Medina (currently No. 9.) This gives him the mental advantage as they square off until Parkinson's offspring qualifies in 2030.

Portugal cuisine
Barrels get you hungry? The Portugese diet consists of more delicious fish than any other country. (That one little guy seems thrilled about it.)

Taj Burrow moved up one place in the rankings after France, but that poor guy is likely out of the hunt ... again. Brazilian Adriano de Souza won here last year, mostly to shut everyone up about that floater earlier in the season. Jordy Smith and Julian Wilson, who both have the potential for a big event here, might have to fight to finish in the top 10. If that doesn't say something about the level of competition in 2012, nothing does.

But let's look at the real title fight, specifically Parkinson and Slater. Here's the skinny: No one can touch Parko right now ... except Slater.

Until recently, Parkinson was one of the few surfers to have a respectable record against Slater. But after surfing so flawlessly at Trestles, he was powerless in the final. While everyone else was hoping for corners in France, Parkinson made threading those chunky ones look easy -- that is until the semi against Kelly. Bottom line is that Parkinson just can't beat Slater right now.

"He always builds, and the later in the event you meet him, the more dangerous he gets. We all know that," Parkinson told ESPN last week.

And later is when they would meet.

Kelly Slater
Slater put on a show in Portugal last year, and he has Parkinson's number right now.

But here's the interesting thing: Slater can fall to anyone in the top 10 right now. He lost to Josh Kerr on the Gold Coast, Mick in the finals at Bells and Ricardo dos Santos at Teahupoo, almost had a shocker to Ace Buchan in France and lost to Adriano here in the final last year. Of course, he will be on fire, but he isn't an absolute sure bet over anyone. Anyone that is, besides Parkinson.

It's quite a puzzle in Peniche. We've got a title race on our hands (and some paella on our chins.)