The early loss of world No1 Andy Murray in his opener was a shock for the biggest, brightest and probably hottest Masters tournament of the year in Indian Wells, as was the exit of No7 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
But the demise of the top seeds, plus No30 Feliciano Lopez, did open up the field for some new in-form players to break new ground.
Two qualifiers competed for a fourth-round place but fell prey to the unlikely No21 seed and clay expert Pablo Carreno Busta, who was at a career high after strong runs in Rio, Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo.
Also riding a wave of clay form was the survivor in Tsonga’s segment. The 31-year-old Pablo Cuevas arrived in California with his third straight title in Sao Paulo, and caused his own upset by beating No11 seed David Goffin in the fourth round.
These two had only lately joined forces to win the doubles title in Rio. Now they faced one another in what was a first Masters quarter-final for both men: Two Pablos, one semi-final up for grabs. It would be a titanic battle that went the distance, a final-set tie-break, and ended in superb style with some extraordinary rallies that left, literally in Cuevas’s case, blood on the court.
Carreno Busta twice faced match points, in the ninth and 11th games of the third set, but he refused to give way as the tennis cranked up the tension to ever-higher levels. He finally edged past the gutsy man from Uruguay, 6-1, 3-6, 7-6(4), but refused to discuss the next match just yet:
“No, no, I’ll enjoy this first. It’s the biggest match of my career!”
It will also lift the Spaniard into the top 20 for the first time, and he would, he afterwards admitted, make sure he watched the other quarter-final in a few hours’ time.
That match featured two more one-handed backhands separated by more than eight years—No3 seed Stan Wawrinka turns 32 this month, No8 seed Dominic Thiem is 23—but little else. Theirs are two of the strongest and most full-blooded backhands on the tour, the both men have formidable power on the forehand and serve, too.
Despite the age difference, both are arguably at the peak of their powers and improving. Wawrinka, the poster boy for the late bloomer, won four 250 titles in his first seven years, and then 11 titles in the last three, including three Grand Slams, a Masters and three 500s.
Only last month, he came within touching distance of beating Federer in a five-set thriller in the semis of the Australian Open. Now he was targeting his first semi run in Indian Wells after a close call against lucky loser Yoshihito Nishioka, 7-6(4) in the final set.
Thiem has been one of the most promising of the next wave of player to rise through the ranks, breaking the top 10 after his first Major semi finish at Roland Garros last year and qualifying for the World Tour Finals.
He won his eighth title in Rio before heading to Indian Wells, where he had already produced some impressive straight-sets wins over Mischa Zverev and Gael Monfils. By the time he faced Wawrinka. he was already joint leader on the tour with 17 match-wins this year.
Thiem got on the board quickly and confidently with a break, coming off the best in an early backhand exchange, but it was short lived: Wawrinka broke back to love courtesy of a Thiem double fault. The Austrian worked another break chance in the third game, but a 32-stroke backhand rally ended in a correct challenge from the Swiss. Wawrinka held with a wry smile.
Yet another break point in the fourth was saved by Thiem, 2-2: This was already high-quality baseline tennis, both going for the lines in long exchanges. The Swiss faced and fought off three more break points in the fifth game after almost half an hour.
Both continued to rip their backhands, Thiem holding to love for 4-4, but Wawrinka took advantage of a couple of forced errors from the Austrian, stood well behind the baseline, and pounded a backhand winner down the line to break, his 17th winner of the set, 6-4.
As in the first, Thiem got the first break in the second set, helped by two double faults from Wawrinka. Two aces and a touch volley helped the Austrian consolidate, 3-1, and although he missed another chance to break, he held onto his own serve for the set, 6-4, keeping Wawrinka pinned down to just three winners compared with 11 of his own.
The younger player failed to convert two chances to break in a nine-minute opening game in the third set, but Wawrinka did not make the same mistake, converting at the first attempt, and holding for 3-0. However, Thiem did break in the next, taking a big forehand on the rise to draw a Swiss error. All square then, and so they headed to a tie-break after Wawrinka missed the chance to close things out on match point at 6-5.
Now the experience and confidence of the Swiss reaped its reward: He had no intention of losing focus, and swept to the win, 7-6(2), after two and a half hours.
He afterwards admitted that experience had certainly played a part in the closing stages:
“I think in general we both played at a high level, and the match came down to only one or two points… I think it’s a little bit of experience, a little bit of confidence, a little bit of thinking about what you want to do, and then just do it without thinking if you’re gonna miss or not.
“In those moments, you need to trust your game and that’s what I did well. I could have lost the match, for sure. But in general, I try to stay with my game plan and not give away anything. I also know that’s when I play good tennis and I can beat anybody. So that gives me a lot of confidence.”
Wawrinka is the Highest Remaining Seed in the tournament, and should not be overly troubled by Carreno Busta in the semis: He dropped only three games in their last match last summer. But further ahead, there is still the chance of a repeat of that Australian semi with old friend and rival Federer—which he would surely relish.
First, though, Federer has an unenviable road to negotiate via the bristling form of Nick Kyrgios and then possibly the second highest remaining seed, Kei Nishikori, all before Wawrinka.
Losing those big names early has done little to dampen the drama in Indian Wells after all.
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