Kelly Slater out; Mick Fanning in for Surfest

HIGH PROFILE: Top Australian surfer Mick Fanning. - Picture by Jason South
HIGH PROFILE: Top Australian surfer Mick Fanning. - Picture by Jason South

MICK Fanning emerged as the man to put the glamour in Surfest after the sport’s biggest drawcard, 11-time world champion Kelly Slater, declared himself unavailable for next month’s Mark Richards Pro.

Surfest organiser Warren Smith learned on Tuesday night that Slater had knocked back the chance to compete in Newcastle, scene of his 2004 contest victory, citing sponsorship commitments in the US.

Smith would not speculate on any other potential drawcards for the second-tier World Qualifying Series event, saying he hoped to make an announcement next week.

But Fanning’s media manager, Ronnie Blakey, told the Newcastle Herald yesterday that the Gold Coast natural-footer was interested in competing at Merewether Beach.

‘‘It’s not yet confirmed, but that is one of the options he’s considering,’’ Blakey said yesterday.

‘‘Mick’s overseas at the moment and we expect him back on Friday. Once he’s back we’ll sit down and go through his schedule for the Australian circuit and decide which contests to enter.

‘‘But Newcastle is definitely one he’s weighing up.’’

Fanning would rate as the standout alternative in the absence of Slater.

Not only is the Gold Coast natural-footer a dual world champion but also he is the only man to have won Surfest three times (2000, ’02, ’05).

Second-tier contests sometimes do not feature enough WQS points or prizemoney to attract the biggest names, but Blakey said that was unlikely to dissuade Fanning.

‘‘Mick feels a bit of an obligation to the sport,’’ he said. ‘‘He likes to give something back to surfing.’’

Smith said he felt Surfest had come ‘‘very close’’ to securing Slater but the event would still feature a top-class field.

‘‘I understand everyone wanted Kelly at the event, and it’s always good to have an athlete of his calibre involved,’’ he said. ‘‘But we’ve just got to move on. I know we’re going to have a world-class event and one of the best fields we’ve assembled.’’

Smith was reluctant to discuss individuals.

‘‘The entries are still coming in,’’ he said.

‘‘We’ll have an announcement on the top seeds in the next week or so.

‘‘I can assure you it’s going to be one of the best fields seen in Newcastle in a long, long time, both the men and the women.

‘‘I can’t name any names at the moment ... that’s what happened with Kelly, and it got a bit out of hand.’’

The Hunter Sports Group, which has committed to supporting Surfest financially for five years, planned to incorporate this year’s event in a sporting smorgasbord to be staged on the weekend of March 17-19.

The Knights will play the Broncos at Ausgrid Stadium on the Friday night then the Jets host A-League champions Brisbane Roar 24 hours later at the same venue.