Nobody paid much attention as the nattily-attired middle-aged bald man emerged from the lift into the lobby of the almost-swish Novotel Manly Pacific Hotel early on Wednesday morning. No one noticed the stylish woven shirt, the un-creased, not-too-tight chinos or the Euro-style lace-up casuals. No one noticed a damn thing until the posse of minders jumped to attention and ushered Kelly Slater out of the door, a record just-six-minutes behind schedule.
Kelly’s been on the road so long he could be forgiven for not knowing what stop he’s at, what streetscape is going to confront him as he pushes through the double-glazed doors into the soft morning rain. But not here, not this time. Whether it’s heaven or hell for him is a question that only he could refuse to answer, but the greatest of all time has woken up in GOAT TOWN. It’s all over every billboard in town, it’s all over the doors he’s just walking through. Manly has gone Kelly crazy.
And not just in the normal, sensible, autograph-my-tits-please-Kelly kind of way. Four days out from a crucial NSW election, one that sets the trend for the Federal to follow in May, Slater has become political capital. The government is not dead and buried, particularly after some race-related idiocy from the leader of the opposition this week, but it’s a bit on the nose, and has been quick to claim credit for saving the Vissla Sydney Pro, and for Slater’s blessed presence at it. Which, it must be said, is a masterstroke. The local Liberal MP, dressed trendy and about half Kelly’s age, has already been sniffing around the lobby, maybe hoping for a magic dusting, but that bird has flown as the GOAT procession, to mix an animal metaphor or three, heads down the Steyne to his first obligation.
So why is Kelly in Sydney, competing in his first QS for yonks, and his first event in Sydney since 2004? Well, money has been mentioned, but while I can confirm that a hefty appearance fee was involved, it’s much more than that. Kelly has always loved the Northern Beaches – in his first flush of pro tour earnings he bought a flat at Avalon – and he has friends and mentors there, some of whom are aging now with health issues. Plus, this is his farewell tour, and why not finish a glorious career as you started it, mixing it up with crazed Brazilian kids in a one-foot shorebreak?
And this is how Kelly’s day begins: in a packed and sweaty marquee at North Steyne where the speakers have to do battle with the beach announcers calling the end heats of the round of several million in barely do-able high tide conditions. Here he is to present Mark Richards with Surfing NSW’s Midget Farrelly Lifetime Achievement Award, in the presence of Midget’s widow Beverlie and daughter Johanna, not to mention a baying flock of media. But Kelly seems relaxed as he enters the fray, sharing some gracious chatter with the Farrelly girls, beaming smiles at Jenny and Mark Richards, whom he seems genuinely chuffed to be honouring.
Nice words about Midget, nice words about MR, media calls inside, media calls outside – wham, bam, thank you, ma’am, and he’s gone.
Later in the day he surfs his round two heat in front of the biggest crowd seen at Manly for a surf contest since Midget won the world title back in ’64. Okay, maybe a bit of poetic licence here, but it’s big, right? And guess what? GOAT barely gets out of second gear but gives the kids a lesson in strategy with a pair of fives. Enough’s enough. Long road ahead. Then he signs autographs in the rain and sows up the evening news with a half hour press conference.
What can you say? Kelly’s always given his fans the time of day but with media, well not always and not so much. I remember one morning in Munich…but, ah, that was then, this is now. And now he’s the master. And whatever they’re paying him to be there, it’s probably not enough.
Thus begins the final season, the year of the GOAT. What can we say but GOAT’s GOAT and that’s that.
// PHIL JARRATT