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Free surf ends Slater’s event, shark ends spectacular day at J-Bay

Huge scores ripped through the entire bracket to the delight of fans and surfers alike, but the biggest name of all had to watch from afar after suffering what is being described as a significant injury.

Kelly Slater broke his foot during a free surf at Jeffreys Bay and is expected to be sidelined for six weeks. The 11-time world champ was scheduled to take on Filipe Toledo in round three, but had to withdraw from the event and seems likely to be out of action through next month’s Billabong Pro Tahiti at Teahupoo.

It’s a major blow to Slater, who appeared ready to make a move up the leaderboard after a middling start to his season. Slater hasn’t made it beyond the quarterfinals yet this year and came into J-Bay tied for 18th with Bede Durbidge and Frederico Morais. He had been able to take down his opening heat against Julian Wilson and Kanoa Igarashi, setting up a nice matchup with Toledo. But Slater had to watch the rest of his fellow competitors enjoy the prime conditions and perfect barrels that showed themselves after his departure.

Slater would have been paddling out immediately after Jordy Smith earned a perfect 20.00 heat total. That dream session was preceded by John John Florence’s 18.27 and followed by Julian Wilson’s 18.27 and Conner Coffin’s 18.67. It was as prime as J-Bay gets and Slater would have been smack in the middle of it.

Smith’s double perfection came after he barely survived a scare against wild card Dale Staples in round two. The pair of South Africans didn’t have much to work with that day, with Smith clenching to 10.67 to 10.27 victory. But a win is a win and Jordy made the most of his good fortune in the following round.

Current points leader Matt Wilkinson has had a good, not great event to this point but the key factor is that he remains in the field. Of the four surfers who all came to J-Bay within 600 points of Wilko’s top ranking, only Adriano de Souza failed to make it beyond round three. The 2015 world champ lost to France’s Joan Duru and will fall a bit behind the rest of the title contenders.

Florence, Smith and Owen Wright have all been very impressive thus far, as have Gabriel Medina, Mick Fanning and Morais. Choosing a favorite is essentially just throwing a blind dart with how great the waves have been. Everyone left can grab the big numbers, so priority and positioning should be the decisive factors.

Tuesday featured a finish that felt somewhat familiar, and not in a good way. The day’s final heat was halted when a shark was seen breaching a bit outside the lineup. Water patrol scooped up the surfers and Commissioner Kieren Perrow ended the day shortly thereafter. It wasn’t anything close to the Mick Fanning incident from 2015, but it was just another reminder of what lurks beneath this location and many like it.

Florence was Hawaii’s only competitor to make it through Tuesday after Ezekiel Lau fell in round three. Sebastian Zietz had some tough luck in round two when he couldn’t find a proper backup score after a 9.83 on his first wave. It’s a frustrating way to lose, needing a middling score in the closing moments. But Seabass hadn’t previously lost in the second round this season, so this throwaway score won’t have much of an impact on the rest of his year.

Catch the waves when you can, because all the competitors have been putting on a fantastic show so far.

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David Simon can be reached at dsimon@thegardenisland.com.

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