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As the 2017 Qualifying Series (QS) hits the midway point at the Vans US Open of Surfing, a trio of Brazilians have put a stranglehold on the top of the QS leaderboard. The three surfers -- Jesse Mendes, Willian Cardoso and Yago Dora -- share a common bond in their native land, but they arrive in Huntington Beach via divergent paths. It would be easy to pigeonhole each with a superficial headline -- the hard-luck story, the perennial grinder and the next big thing -- but that would be to simplify the sublime.
Ironically, there were probably times in the not-so-distant past when Jesse Mendes qualified as the "next big thing." Mendes, however, might argue that he's here now and that's all that matters. As it's been related on this website numerous times recently, Mendes has already essentially cemented his spot to the Championship Tour in 2018. And while his sizzling start to the season hasn't always been front page news, some in the press have framed Mendes' rise as unexpected or the culmination of years of Qualification Series toil. In both cases, that would be selling the goofyfoot from Guarujá, Brazil, short.
Jesse chats with his girlfriend, CT surfer Tatiana Weston-Webb, and CT surfer Ian Gouveia. Photo: WSL / Poullenot
Once a highly decorated grommet, 24-year-old Mendes is a peer of and longtime foil to Gabriel Medina since their precocious days on the Junior Tour, surfing the beach breaks outside the concrete megalopolis that is São Paulo. But, unlike Medina, Mendes did not leap into qualification as a teenager, preferring a more measured approach. After a few years of dipping his toes into QS waters, 2015 was his first definitive head-first dive into qualifying. It's more than likely that his promising results in '15 as an incoming freshman on the QS may have distorted the perception of his true time on tour (he finished the year ranked No. 36).
In 2016, with solid backing from his main sponsor and a high seed into all the big tour stops, Mendes headed into the Hawaii leg sitting inside the top 10 qualification cut-off line. But he needed to close out his campaign with two strong results in the final two QS10,000 events of the year. After a disappointing 33rd place finish at the Haleiwa Pro, he tumbled down the rankings. Yet, with his fate still in his own hands, Mendes needed a very good result at the World Cup at Sunset Beach to make the cut. Under immense pressure, he surfed well at Sunset but his run ended in the Quarterfinals, one round short of the additional 1500 points that would likely have pushed him well into qualification territory. Forced to watch from the sidelines at the Pipe Masters, Mendes' near-miss story was lost among the dramatics of his Quiksilver teammates Kanoa Igarashi and Zeke Lau, who had their own qualification (and re-qualification) dreams on the line. In the end, he finished ranked No. 13, two slots outside the QS cutoff line, 1050 points shy of the mark.
Jesse Mendes' 5th at the Ballito Pro all but sealed his qualification for the 2018 CT. Photo: WSL / Cestari
That was then. Mendes didn't leave it to fate to decide his CT destiny in 2017. Now, the real work begins.
Perched at No. 2, nearly 10,000 points behind Mendes, sits Willian Cardoso. Now 31, Cardoso stands 5'10" and weighs in at 215 lbs. He's a hulking brute of a man, barrel-chested with tattooed limbs and an unruly, lumberjack beard. But the tough guy exterior belies a humble, family man who's well-respected on tour by his peers, and earning him the deferential nickname of the "Aussie-Brazilian." He's like a panda bear trapped in the body of a UFC cage-fighter. Cardoso may be seem off the radar to many, but he's far from a new face to the QS grind. In fact, Cardoso has been out there fighting for points for nearly eight years, popping up now and again on the highlights reels. Some might say that his best days are behind him, but as his runner-up finish at the QS10,000 Ballito Pro shows, the sturdy regularfoot's still got some game.
Willian Cardoso at the 2016 Vans Triple Crown. Photo: WSL / Kirstin
It's a well-known fact that it's not easy out there grinding on the QS without significant financial backing from sponsors, money can be tight and the burden can weigh heavily on families back home. "I worked really hard to get to the Final and I almost ended my career this year and all my family supported me to come here," said an emotional Cardoso in Ballito, after placing 2nd to world No. 2 Jordy Smith. In professional motocross racing they call guys like Cardoso "privateers." Top-shelf racers without the support of a major sponsor, propped up only by their own bank accounts and a tight-knit support crew of family and friends. They wrench on their own bikes, driving from race to race in panel vans that double as both a hotel room on wheels and pit garage. It's a labor of love, but very few break through to the big time and a "factory ride."
Willian Cardoso's runner-up to Jordy Smith in Ballito was the best result for any surfer on the QS. Photo: WSL / Cestari
It's not like Cardoso hasn't tasted success, though. He's flirted with the CT, most recently back in 2012 and 2013 when he finished ranked No. 36 and No. 35, respectively, on the back of three wildcard slots both years. His best result was a 5th at Bells in 2013, but he fared no better than 25th in the other five tries. His trips up to the big leagues have been agonizingly short. Still, he's won big events on the QS Tour in the past, taking the win at the Coca-Cola Saquarema Pro in 2010 (as well as placing 2nd at the US Open in 2014), one of the most important stops on the QS at the time. Then, as they say, life takes over. Triumph and tragedy ensue, and the next thing you know you're 10 years into the grind, having reached the precipice only to have your dreams yanked cruelly from your grasp. Yet, after contemplating retirement, one big result in South Africa's refueled Cardoso's fire. After the final in Ballito he said, "I hope I can get a few more results this year and finally realize my dream of being on the Championship Tour!"
Last on our list at No. 3, but perhaps the surfer with the most potential for greatness, is 19-year-old Yago Dora. Dora's meteoric ascent up the QS rankings was almost an afterthought for a surfer who until very recently was best known for his freesurfing and his breakout role in Volcom's latest cinematic surf musings, Psychic Migrations. Buoyed by a victory at the QS6000 Maitland and Port Stephens Toyota Pro (say that fast three times) to kickstart his '17 campaign in March and a 9th last month at the Ballito Pro, Dora trails Cardoso by just 135 points.
Yago Dora at the Oi Rio Pro. Photo: WSL / Poullenot
Long and limber, Dora's surfing blends the quiet flow of John John Florence with the edgy spontaneity of Bruce Irons. Still an unfinished product, he's as much a distillation of Paul Rodriguez's silky skating as he is Craig Anderson's laconic surfing. Quick to throw down a smile and a schooner with his iconoclastic Volcom teammates like Mitch Coleborn and Ozzie Wright, he's a rocknrolla with a taste for fuzzy grunge guitar licks. He's a stylist with a jagged edge.
Yago Dora put the rest of the QS on notice with an impressive win in Newcastle to kick off 2017. Photo: WSL / Luke
And yet, as his early-season triumph during the Australian leg proved, the young man's a human highlight film with a ruthless competitive streak. As are many young Brazilian phenoms these days, he's well coached up by his father, who's tuned Yago's tactical skills to match his more esoteric freesurfing exploits. He'll still be dropping mind-blowing web edits on the regular, but that doesn't mean he's not keen to make his mark at pro surfing's elite level. After his third-place finish as a wildcard in front of a raging and rowdy hometown crowd at the CT-level Oi Rio Pro, he was quick to dispel any rumors of skipping the CT if he does indeed qualify this year. Stating flatly: "If I qualify, I'll be on Tour next year, no doubt."