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Surfing great Kelly Slater could make history in Puerto Rico

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ISABELA, Puerto Rico — A Florida surfer is aiming to make history in his sport nearly 20 years after he first started competing.

Kelly Slater, at age 38, could become the first surfer to win 10 world titles, depending on the results of the 2010 Rip Curl Pro Search which opened Saturday. The competition that drew more than 40 of the world’s best surfers.

On Saturday, both Slater and top rival Jordy Smith, a 22-year-old South African, each beat two other surfers to win their heats and advance to the next round, which is tentatively scheduled for Monday.

Rip Curl has until Nov. 10 to run the men’s event, which consists of five elimination rounds before the quarterfinals. It is unclear exactly when Slater and Smith will compete next because it depends on swell conditions. Every day at dawn, the judges and surfers decide whether the waves are good enough to hold that day’s competition.

Slater has earned enough points in the eight international competitions held so far this year that he could win the world title before heading to the last event in Hawaii’s famed Pipeline in December.

Fans marvel at how a man who won his first title in 1992 can remain so dominant in a sport where he still regularly beats surfers nearly half his age doing tricks not seen five years ago.

“Most people put it up to freakish, preternatural talent,” said Stuart Cornuelle, managing editor of California-based SURFING magazine. “He is widely known as a ferocious competitor.”

Steve Sherman, a photographer who has known Slater for more than a decade, is amazed at how the surfer with piercing blue eyes is competitive at everything, be it pingpong or poker.

“He knows his psychology of winning, the ‘art of war’ if you want to call it,” Sherman said. “He knows how to drop psychological bombs.”

And Slater does it to young and seasoned surfers alike.

“The best way to face him is not to think about him. He knows how to get into your head,” said Mick Fanning, a gregarious Australian who is the reigning world surfing champion, having won titles in 2009 and 2007.

So will Slater retire if he does win a 10th title 18 years after claiming his first one?

“I think about getting off the tour and it sounds nice. But if you have the abilities, why not do it?” he said. “For me, it’s about performance. When that stops improving, it’s time to stop.”

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