For a reputed clay-court specialist, Pablo Carreño Busta has sure found his footing on the California cement. With a 6-1, 3-6, 7-6(4) dismissal of oft-opponent Pablo Cuevas, the Spaniard finds himself in the first ATP World Tour Masters 1000 semifinal of his career at the BNP Paribas Open.
"It's an amazing feeling," said Carreño Busta, at No. 23 the third-ranked Spaniard behind only Rafael Nadal and Roberto Bautista Agut. "This tournament is one of the best — not just of the Masters 1000s, but one of the best tournaments of the year and maybe one of the toughest, because everyone is playing here, all of the Top 20 except Milos Raonic. So I think it's a really great result for me."
The truth is, the 25-year-old baseliner isn't your quintessential dirtballer. Like his countryman Nadal, he's capable of adopting an attacking style on hard courts, something he's shown in recent years.
"I'm comfortable on these courts also," he said. "I like clay courts, but the two tournaments that I've won [Moscow and Winston-Salem] I won on hard courts [in 2016], and now I'm in the semifinals here. So I think I can play on all the surfaces."
Carreño Busta has been a busy man in 2017. He's now 15-6 in singles; 12-4 in doubles. He advanced to the third round at the Australian Open, and reached the Rio de Janeiro final, losing to another heavy scheduler, Dominic Thiem. Some might go as far as to say he's at risk of overplaying, but it's hard to back off when the wins keep on coming.
"I will be in the Top 20 now," he said. "That was my objective when I started year. We're in March and I'm Top 20, so that's good news for me. But I need to continue working. I need to work hard, because it's not easy to be here. And I know that if I stop now, I will roll back again. So I'm very happy."
In addition to his hard-court titles, he reached two other finals last year (Estoril and Sao Paulo), and secured the best year-end ranking of his five-year pro career (No. 30).
Carreño Busta's quarter of the draw opened up wide with the earlier-than-expected upsets of top seed Andy Murray and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. And there has to be some sense of urgency for the Spaniard to make the most of his opportunity. To do so, he'll surely call upon the mental toughness he's honed under coaches Samuel Lopez and Cesar Fabregas.
"We work so hard to be focused all the time, to be very aggressive, to try to dominate all the points," he said. "It's not easy, of course, but they've helped me a lot during this year and a half of working with them. I hope that things will continue like this. [Former No. 1] Juan Carlos Ferrero helped me a lot also. I think we are working very well together, very hard. Right now, I'm very confident."
He'll need that confidence on Saturday in Stadium 1 when he faces No. 3 seed Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland, against whom he is 0-2.