The Qualifying Series (QS) is a different ball game from the Championship Tour (CT) on so many levels, but mainly the cutthroat, sudden-death pressure that gets exerted in the quick, 30-minute heats. Ballito, as a QS10000, is the great leveler. QS and CT stars are on equal footing once the horn blows.
Every heat is stacked in these premier QS events. While conditions improved for Wednesday's competition, bringing some comfort to surfers, there was still no escaping the pressure of the moment. Even the slowest of heats maintain a frenetic pace; everyone patrolling, desperately pushing, combo-ing, punting to flats. It's a great show for enthusiastic fans, filled with high-stakes drama.
Yet as the clock ticks mercilessly, so too do the high-profile casualties.
Hawaiian Sebastian Zietz, who's ranked No. 6 on the Men's Championship Tour, failed to advance out of the second round, and the much-vaunted Jack Robinson fell in the very next heat as his small-wave woes continued. CT stars Jadson Andre and Kanoa Igarashi were also victims of the early-round carnage.
On the flip side are unsung heroes of the early rounds, putting in performances that make lasting impressions on peers and judges, but don't always make the headlines.
Championship tour rookie goofy-footer Ryan Callinan is getting back in sync with his powerful backhand approach, along with his new-found confidence. The kid has muscled up, resulting in some heavy turns in the tricky but punchy right-hand bowls. Second-highest score of the day, and a definite nod of approval from the judges for his rapidly improving act.
Brazilian Michael Rodrigues earned the highest heat total of the day, with 17. He opened up the judging spread with some powerful forehand airs, consisting of a massive 9.57 single-move air rote, and a heat total of 17.9 for a big win. "It's the best feeling," said Rodrigues, "This is the place for me. It feels like home and I'm really happy here. I was able to just relax and free-surf in my heat."
Local boy Beyrick "Bedrock" De Vries represented South Africa well in a tough match against Japan's Hiroto Ohhara, Brazil's latest World Junior Champion Lucas Silveira, and the aforementioned Kanoa Igarashi. The South African put his entire repertoire on display in earning his advance to Round Three.
Then Jordy Smith paddled out in heat 12 and time stood still.
For an instant, the onshore stopped blowing. The crowded beach fell silent, and the commentators stopped their banter. The world held its collective breath. Somewhere, in the distance, a dog barked... .
Smith was facing Thomas Woods, Mitch Crews and Robson Santos, and he got busy in a hurry, offering fans and judges a whole new look to the way the waves had been surfed in Ballito so far. On his second scoring wave he took off, bottom-turned hard and hucked into a reverse air with remarkable ease and flow. He landed, precariously, but rode it out and straight into another big forehand air.
"I'm feeling good, but it was great to get a heat out the way," said Jordy afterwards. "I was a little anxious actually, on home soil and all that sort of stuff, but it went great."
Woods and Crews, both from Australia, were only in it for second place, while Santos, the fast Brazilian goofyfooter, was out the game.
It wasn't about Jordy's moves though. It was more about the calm place where these moves were being conceived and about the flow and relaxed approach. It was about the brightly sprayed board, and it was about Jordy having fun in front of his home crowd. As mentioned, he is fit and injury-free. He is in a very good place, and there's an impending performance streak coming either way.
"That board. It has like a big lightning bolt on it," Jordy said of the spray. "I was just feeling it. The board's like four years old and sometimes older boards lose their spark, but this one still has its spark, a lightning-bolt spark"
It was more than fitting that the entire contest site had a power meltdown on the final siren of his heat.
Eventually the long day wrapped in the afternoon shadows with Josh Moniz providing the biggest punt of the day, a 9.6. Big score, ballsy single move, no house-building for the Hawaiian.
The Ballito Pro Presented By Billabong is looking at another 7 a.m. start tomorrow.