World Title contenders Gabriel Medina, Filipe Toledo and Julian Wilson all progressed to Round 3 on the opening day the MEO Rip Curl Pro Portugal. While Medina and Wilson progressed with little trouble, Toledo’s first Round 1 loss meant he had to win a sudden death matchup in Round 2 late in the day.
“I feel after the results in France and to a lesser degree here today, the momentum has shifted to Gabe and Julian,” said 3x World Champion Mick Fanning.
“Julian is now right in the zone and Gabe looks really relaxed,” continued Fanning, who won the first CT held here in Peniche ten years ago. “He thrives on confidence and after two event wins and a third in France, his confidence is sky high. These conditions suit the two of them. They both have so many weapons.”
Fanning’s analysis proved correct with Wilson and Medina both utilizing their full arsenal to lodge a few of the day’s best heat scores. Early on the momentum shift looked even greater when World No. 2 Toledo came unstuck in his early Round 1 matchup, before making amends late in the day.
The penultimate CT event kicked off with yet another heat win for Ryan Callinan in Europe. It had been less than four days since the Australian had surfed in the Final of the Quik Pro France. In that time Hurricane Leslie had parked herself off the Portuguese coast. The storm had sent a raw, sand-gouging swell and scaffold-bending winds towards the contest site over the weekend. Today it finally cleared, but its effects could still be felt.
“I really have to reset and learn the lineup, adjust to the banks and start fresh,” Callinan said after defeating Zeke Lau and Owen Wright. The storm had left a jumbled swell and even when the wind came to clean it up, the most used word to describe the break was “tricky.”
Jordy Smith, who defeated Yago Dora and Keanu Asing, had a typically unique take on it. “You have to take it for what it is,” said the World No. 5. “Basically you have to dress up a pig. You have to paddle out, try your hardest and put on a show.”
As the sun burst through midmorning, conditions improved. It was at this stage that the three remaining World Title contenders entered the water in consecutive heats.
Julian Wilson was the first to put on a show. He started with a long barrel and a 7.50. He then backed it with a single maneuver on a huge closeout section. The move showed such a level of risk, commitment and lack of regard for personal safety that the judges rewarded the single turn with another 7 point ride.
“It took two days to drive down here with the family, and yesterday I was pretty flat,” Wilson said. “However when I saw the ocean, I got excited and gave myself a kick in the ass and got going.”
Wilson has been affected all year by a shoulder injury sustained way back in February, but during his win at the Quik Pro France he felt he was back to full fitness for the first time.
“It’s a powerful, intense wave that breaks close to the beach,” continued Wilson. “It’s physically challenging, but I’m feeling good. I’m not thinking about my shoulder, I’m just excited to miss that Round 2 and keep performing in challenging conditions under pressure.”
Speaking of pressure, in the next heat Wilson’s World Title challenger Filipe Toledo lost a close match to fellow Brazilian Tomas Hermes. That meant he would surf again in Round 2 against Wildcard Samuel Pupo knowing a loss would end his campaign.
“Round 2, World Title on the line, that was a heavy one,” said Toledo afterwards. “I had enough pressure without putting more on myself. I told myself to calm down and focus on getting barreled, which is what I did at the start of the heat.” An incredible tube earned him an 8.17 and Toledo was back in the hunt.
Medina had earlier been more ruthless in his Round 1. He is the only surfer that can claim the World Title here in Portugal and surfed liked that was the aim. He caught 11 waves in his heat and mixed excellent technical backhand tuberiding with huge re-entries. He logged a heat score of 13.17 in yet another calm and confident display.
“I’m happy to be surfing in the Jeep Leader Jersey for the first time this year and happy to catch a few waves even if its tricky out there,” Medina said. “It’s also great to be in Portugal and have this support. It feels like surfing at home because when you come in there is so much love and support. It adds motivation for sure.”
Away from the top end of the ratings, motivation was no issue for many of the surfers who are desperately trying to win heats to secure their CT place for 2019. Only the top 22 surfers on the Jeep Leaderboard are guaranteed their place next year and for surfers like Ian Gouveia, Portugal is the last chance saloon.
The World No. 30 won his battle with Kolohe Andino and Jeremy Flores, using the tube riding skills at Supertubos that earned him a Pipe Masters Semifinal finish last year.
“I like these type of conditions,” said Gouveia, “you surf on your own and it’s not about hassling with competitors, but dealing with the ocean and trying to find rhythm. I was lucky to find it today.”
Finding rhythm wasn’t easy, as shown by the fact that the local wildcards Miguel Blanco and Vasco Ribeiro both fell in Round 2 to Owen Wright and Wade Carmichael. “There’s 9s or 2s out there. This wave offers everything and is all encompassing,” said Wright. “It can be perfect and chaotic and everything in between.”