An unexpected opening men’s quarter-final awaits on Thursday as Pablo Carreno Busta of Spain takes on Pablo Cuevas of Uruguay - who will advance to their first Masters 1000 semi-final at Indian Wells?
We always knew that some surprise match-ups could eventuate deep into the top half of the draw with so many big names entrenched at the bottom, but I don’t think anyone would have predicted the first BNP Paribas Open quarter-final on the men’s side to feature the two Pablo’s - Carreno Busta and Cuevas. Both players will be competing in their maiden Masters 1000 quarter-final - on a hardcourt no less - with a landmark prize of an Indian Wells semi-final up for grabs in this contest. It’s arguably a once-in-a-lifetime chance for these two players, but who will hold their nerve in the biggest match of their careers come Thursday afternoon inside Stadium 1?
For Pablo Cuevas, this moment has been a long time coming. It’s taken him 29 Masters 1000 events over the course of a 14-year professional career, but Cuevas has finally advanced through to the quarter-finals courtesy of three great victories over Martin Klizan, Fabio Fognini and last year’s Indian Wells semi-finalist David Goffin. Cuevas was in marvellous form in dispatching 11th seed Goffin 6-3 3-6 6-3, with the Uruguayan now riding a seven-match winning streak into the quarter-finals after also capturing his sixth ATP title on the clay of Sao Paolo a fortnight ago.
You’d have forgiven Cuevas for thinking this moment may never have transpired. The highest-ranked Uruguayan player in history was unranked for a large period between 2012 and 2013 due to serious knee issues and a major knee operation which he underwent in 2011. Cuevas was unsure if he’d ever be able to pick up a racquet competitively again, but he returned to action better than ever, winning all five of his ATP titles since the surgery - including back-to-back clay titles at Rio de Janeiro (beating Rafael Nadal en route) and Sao Paolo last year.
After breaking into the top 20 for the first time last year after a run to the ATP 500 Hamburg final, Cuevas has sort of been hovering around that mark ever since, although he has dropped to a current mark of No. 30 after losing in the opening round of the Australian Open, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro before he successfully defended his Sao Paolo title. Projected to return to the top 25 regardless of his result in the quarter-finals, Cuevas has certainly returned to form this week in the desert.
Pablo Cuevas (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
His opponent on Thursday - Pablo Carreno Busta - has been in underrated form for quite some time now.
Incredibly, Carreno Busta will break into the top 20 for the first time if he can conquer Cuevas and reach the Indian Wells semi-finals. However this run hasn’t come entirely out of nowhere.
The Spaniard has been quietly improving his game across all surfaces over the last year, and Carreno Busta’s hard work paid off during the back-end of 2016 as he secured his first two ATP titles at Winston-Salem and Moscow. Carreno Busta was also a finalist on the clay of Sao Paolo (losing to Cuevas) and Estoril, while he made the semi-finals of Los Cabos and the quarter-finals at Quito, Marrakech, Geneva, Umag and Beijing during what was an extremely consistent season.
Carreno Busta isn’t a player that catches the eye when you first watch him, but you always knew he had the talent after he jumped over 650 positions in the ATP rankings back in 2013 immediately after sitting out seven months following back surgery for a herniated disc. Since then, Carreno Busta has slowly been climbing the ranks, and he could land himself a milestone spot in the top 20 if he can win through to his first Masters 1000 semi-final in the Californian desert.
Cuevas and Carreno Busta have split their four previous tour-level meetings at two wins apiece - with all four matches being won in straight sets and the last three involving one tiebreak. I’ve been waiting for Carreno Busta to make a breakthrough in a big tournament for a while now - it’s been gradually bubbling beneath the surface and now it’s come. Both are tremendous grinders from the baseline, but I just have a feeling this is Carreno Busta’s time to shine. I’m backing the Spaniard to advance to the semi-finals.