If you are a world title contender, drawing the first heat of the day at Pipe can be a nerve-wracking experience. The conditions are not entirely apparent and the judges haven’t calibrated their scores. It seems like there is more that can potentially go wrong. And if you are not a morning person then heat one can feel like a death sentence. Night-owl Slater always hates heat one. Jadson Andre was never going to make it easy for compatriot Italo Ferreira in the first heat of the day. It’s hard to know who the other Brazilian surfers are backing for the title but Andre threw his grass-hopper frame into everything that came his way and invariably made Italo work hard. In the end, the world number one had to hunt down a foamy-faced left and muscle through to secure a slim victory. Italo did enough to get it done but an 8.53 heat total on a day offering genuine Pipe drainers was never going to make him the favourite in the title race. If he is to claim the crown then he will have to rise to an entirely different level. Free surfing edits suggest he has been putting his time in, but he is still a long way from Medina in the Pipe arena. Perhaps the pointers from Shane Dorian will help, but all the cunning, guile, courage and self-awareness required to thrive at Pipe is hard to teach.      

While Italo ground-out a victory, Riccardo Christie once again made Pipeline the graveyard for Toledo’s world title dreams. Toledo started confidently as he took off deep and even stalled through a couple of Pipe funnels. The commentators even began to talk about his new ‘comfort levels’. However, the waves were mid-size and were never going to guarantee him an emphatic lead. The tables were turned when Riccardo had his fleece of dreadlocks chopped by the lip and still emerged from a throaty left. The legendary locks almost worked as a stalling device and helped Riccardo to a 7.67. Toledo had no answer and became the first casualty in the world title race. Post-heat Toledo bravely faced the camera and gave us a window into his mind. “You are trying not to prove to everybody that you are trying to do it but at the back of your mind you really are trying to.” I’m no psychologist but it seems like Toledo was expending too much energy playing it cool. With Medina and Italo there are never any attempts to disguise the ambition. They don’t apologise for being fiercely competitive and determined. It seems Toledo’s two-faced approach is a trap many of the surfers on tour fall into. No title was ever won by someone trying to look like they weren’t trying too hard.

The surf media, fans, and the WSL are all guilty of an incredible bias. We dedicate a disproportionate amount of attention to Kelly Slater, even when he is not within cooee of the world title. But how can you not? Every heat feels like it may be the last opportunity to witness Kelly’s rare genius. Sometimes he disappoints but today he certainly didn’t. Trailing the affable Joan Duru he jagged a left and went flying through a triple-section coil at Pipe and finished with a sausage-leg, (rolled-boardshort) floater just to prove how much he wanted the win. The wave earned him a 7.33. and control of the heat.  

For his next trick, Kelly split the peak with Duru, who held priority and swung left. Kelly went MIA behind a gurgling backdoor zipper and somehow conjured an exit. Kelly’s double-fist pump claim was an instinctive response to a barrel he knew had taken every ounce of his tube-nous to ride. The claim wasn’t an appeal to the judges but a gesture of pure satisfaction. The wave up-staged Medina’s performance as their heats over-lapped; something Kelly would have loved.

Later Kelly admitted the ten-pointer was no ordinary wave. “It’s the best wave I’ve had out here in a few years. I kept trying to doggy-door the thing but I couldn’t.” Kelly also revealed that he had blatantly sold the left to Duru before he hooked right. It was Kelly the competitor at his best, calling on gamesmanship and barrel riding brilliance to out-class the opposition. Slater will come up against a rampaging Seth Moniz who was the winner of one of the day’s most entertaining heats against Billy Kemper. Kelly has the form to win the event at age 47 and may also be a factor in the world title race. Of course, we will continue to obsess over his every move even if he puts deserving surfers in the shadows.

Up against whirlwind wildcard, Imai DeVault Medina suffered a couple of uncharacteristic early wipe-outs and everyone wondered for a second if he might capitulate. However, before long he was gliding through a deep, Pipe barrel and then launching a sky-tickler front-side air, making the judges wonder if the perfect, modern Pipe wave has to involve some kind of aerial icing. Medina went into Pipe-monster mode and backed his 8.5 with a stand-tall through a gaping Pipe hole that included a big look-back for dramatic effect. He was awarded an 8.57 for the theatrics  but perhaps Medina’s most impressive ride wasn’t in the top two. Taking off on one of the biggest waves of the day he pulled in deep at Pipe. As the lip dropped like a plummeting concrete slab he found the narrowest of exits. The wave should have been titled The Great Escape. As the commentators pointed out if he hadn’t been inch perfect he would have been risking major injury.

Although Medina had surfed gloriously he still had ten minutes at the end of the heat with Imai DeVault only chasing a 7.5 after he locked in the best backside wave at Pipe of the day for a 9.57. The last agonising five minutes saw Imai with priority after Medina took a wave that didn’t improve his equation. “Regardless of the result Imai has certainly scared the world champion and defending Pipe champion,” boomed Barton. Medina held on and despite the nervy finish he had been imperious. With 8.57 for his best ride, he would have beaten Italo with a single wave. He had two more excellent-range rides to back that one up. In terms of the remaining title contenders, it’s impossible not to see Medina as the clear favourite. It will require another meltdown from Medina or the performance of a lifetime from either Italo Ferreira or Kolohe Andino to swing the result against Gabriel. Of course, it’s Pipeline and anything is possible and like everyone else, I’m hoping it goes down to the wire. Medina does find himself in an intriguing match-up against Caio Ibelli in the Round of 16. We all know that Medina’s indiscretion in the heat against Ibelli in Portugal made his world title quest all the more challenging. It will be psychological warfare when the two Brazilians meet at Pipe. Aside from being a bogey surfer for Medina, Ibelli is also a first-class tube rider, who is capable of winning on pure merit rather than mind-games. Meanwhile, Italo has a much easier proposition in the form of Peterson Crisanto. He should win in the first heat of the round, but if he loses it’s advantage Medina immediately.

The other surfer you can’t ignore, particularly at Pipe, is John John Florence. On his glow-stick-yellow blade, John John was matched against old-sparring partner Zeke Lau. Little happened until John soul-arched through a frothy backdoor runner and reminded everyone in an instant that he’s still got it.

The judges went eight and Barton talked it down but the semantics of the score weren’t as important as the restored confidence in John. Just to prove the braced back knee had no problem handling the contortion involved with grab-rail, backside tube riding, John hucked into a big left, jostled with the foam ball and waited for the spit to deliver the perfect punch-line before he cruised out.

With his confidence boosted John John put on a backside tube tutorial with an excitable Barton Lynch playing Mr Squiggle to break down the technique that allows John John to be Pipeline’s Houdini.

“Kelly and Gabe got me fired up… I feel like I’m just warming up,” John John commented post heat. Asked if he would be rattled by Medina making it to three titles before him, John didn’t hold back. “It’ll motivate me a ton. It’ll make me a little pissed off to know he’s gone one better.” Perhaps hoping to get a little inside Gabe’s head he stated, “I know what it’s like to compete for a world title out there. It’s super hard to deal with.”

In his match-up with Jesse Mendes, Jordy Smith rode his waves before the wind turned west – an ugly kind of onshore at Pipe. Whether intentional or not it seemed like he’d made a sharp move as he nuzzled towards a 7.5 heat total. The South African wasn’t secure but as conditions deteriorated it seemed increasingly unlikely that sick-looking Pipe would cough up a meaningful score. However, after a controversial priority switch, Mendes somehow fell from the sky on a set, tip-toed through a bottom turn and negotiated a wind-whipped Pipe tube for a 5.17 and the lead. Meanwhile, Jordy was getting mowed down by a set and watching his title hopes drown as Pipe proved how merciless it can be. 

“And then there were three,” Pottz proclaimed as Jordy's loss was made official. Kolohe Andino, the third remaining contender, was scheduled to surf in the final heat of the day, but as the wind howled from the wrong way a ruffled Marty Thomas was thrust onto our screens to announce the contest would go on stand-by after the heat between Colapinto and Buchan wrapped up.  

Just as it seemed the day's dramas were over, a forlorn Jordy came on the screen disputing that he gave up the priority that allowed Jesse to catch the heat-winning wave. “It’s a tough one to swallow,” Jordy repeatedly said looking like he wanted to put his head on Rosey’s shoulder and have a good cry.

The replay suggested that Mendes had played his part perfectly, putting the breaks on his paddle from the inside and raising an arm to catch the priority judge’s attention while Jordy was still stroking. One could argue that Jordy is still entitled to have a long look even if Jesse has pulled up on his inside. The question is did Jesse really want the wave or did he just want the priority switch on the basis of blocking? In the end, it was a deft use of the priority rule and it made it clear that surfers are probably better off making sure they hold the inside position at Pipe with priority, so they can actually see what the opposition is doing.  

Pipe played the ultimate chameleon and marvelous Marty called the show back on. By the time Kolohe and Sebastian Zietz paddled out for the final heat, the lineup was oily slick and playing host to a new, building swell. Despite the seemingly optimal conditions, the two natural footers struggled to find waves of consequence. Kolohe ultimately kept his slim hopes of a title alive with a tense performance, sealing the victory with a sublime barrel-to-carve combo that suggested the Californian can still reach for something a little special. “I’d definitely rather have a low scoring heat and come out on top,” Kolohe claimed after the heat. He was feeding himself the right internal dialogue, but he will need to find excellent scores if he wants to go all the way.

As it stands he needs to win the event and be sure that Italo doesn’t progress beyond the quarters if he is to claim the title. It’s an unlikely scenario but one can’t forget 1995 when Kelly went to Pipe a long way behind Sunny Garcia and Rob Machado and still managed to steal the title and win the Pipe Masters.

The world title scenarios.

You never know how the dominos may fall and for what it’s worth Kolohe seems like he is in the right frame of mind to capitalise on a Stephen Bradbury scenario.    

“Sometimes you just gotta lay it down thick and have some fun,” he mused in his post-heat interview.

Today was one of those days that makes you feel very fortunate to be a fan of Pro surfing and with plenty of swell forecast it seems surfing’s greatest stage is set to deliver another thrilling finale to a world title race. With Olympic slots, requalification scenarios and the triple crown still at play there is plenty of drama left to unfold.