Soft-spoken with an easy smile, Jesse Mendes' cool exterior belies the red-hot ambition that lies within. The 25-year-old Brazilian will be joining the 2018 WSL Championship Tour this season with a mix of electric, above-the-lip surfing, comfort in heavier waves, and an increasingly refined approach to competition.
But Mendes' journey wasn't a straight path to professional glory. Instead, he spent nearly a decade on the WSL Qualifying Series, working his way up the ranks. While his peers -- Brazilian pros like Gabriel Medina, Miguel Pupo and Italo Ferreira -- qualified for the Tour, one by one, while Mendes was still making his way. Now, seven years later, he's finally joining some of them in the big leagues.
When they were still in their teens Mendes was arguably Medina's biggest rival, taking him down as much as Medina got him back. In a 2011 interview with Surfer, the then-19-year-old acknowledged the double-edged sword of inspiration and pressure that came with his friend's success.
"Since we were tiny, we've had so many heats together," said Mendes. "We always went against each other for every major title growing up, because we're the same age. We're very competitive. It's not something we ever bring out of the water, but in the water it's always really intense.
"We know how the other one works, because we've been competing against each other for so long," he continued. "Like last year at Lowers, after we hadn't had a heat together for so long, we had a great one that was really tough. I won, but he beat me later on in Europe. It's always so close, but we can leave that competitiveness in the water and not have it affect our relationship... . We never get jealous of the other. I'm so stoked for what he's done on the World [Championship] Tour, and it only makes me want to work harder and get better."
Despite Mendes' slower CT track than some of his fellow Brazilians, that extra time might make his arrival there that much stronger. While Medina simply soared, earning a World Title in 2014, most rookies have a rougher go. Pupo ping-ponged up and down the ranks, dropping out off the Tour for 2018, while swaths of others -- like 2017 rookies Leo Fioravanti and Ethan Ewing -- drop off after year one, often to try to requalify, all over again.
But unlike most rookies, Mendes has already competed -- and often won -- against most of the CT surfers who he'll face this year. Plus, he's had the benefit of his girlfriend, Tatiana Weston-Webb's, experience on the women's CT for the past few years (she qualified in 2015). And if his performance in 2017 was any indication, Mendes will likely leave nothing to chance once he paddles out this season. After just missing the qualification cutoff in 2016, he practically burned the QS down this past year, tallying more than enough by July. He continued to lead the pack practically until December in Hawaii, where Californian Griffin Colapinto had a breakout success and inched into No. 1.
Through all of that, however, Mendes has maintained his calm persona, projecting the kind of patience and maturity that one needs to thrive amid the top-ranked pros. He'll also have his partner, Weston-Webb, as support. When asked last year if he struggled after she made the CT and he hadn't yet, he said, "We work as a team. I want to see her doing her best and she wants to see me doing my best. Hopefully it works out this year and we'll both be doing the CT."