When Pablo Carreno Busta made his first Grand Slam semifinal at the US Open in 2017, it was thought of by some in tennis circles as a fluke of sorts. The Spaniard beat four qualifiers in a row to reach the quarterfinals and then took out the 29th seed, Diego Schwartzman, to book his place in the final four. He then faced 28th seed Kevin Anderson in the semifinals in what looked like a winnable match on paper for the Spaniard.
But Anderson, who went on to reach the final at Wimbledon a year later, played at a level significantly higher than his seeding would have suggested and, while Carreno Busta put up a valiant fight, even taking the first set off Anderson, Anderson was ultimately a deserved four-set winner. Thereafter, despite the incredible achievement of making a Grand Slam semifinal, questions were asked of Carreno Busta, with suggestions that he had benefited from a weak draw.
Of course his round of 16 victory over Denis Shapovalov and quarterfinal win over Schwartzman are more impressive in hindsight, but playing four qualifiers in a row was certainly fortunate. And the ATP 250 title he had won in Estoril that year, which added to wins at 250-level in Winston-Salem and Moscow, did little to change anyone’s mind. Nor, in the following couple of years did Carreno Busta live up to the higher expectations created by his run in New York.
He won just one ATP singles title, the Chengdu Open in September of last year, and failed to impress on the biggest stages of all. He didn’t make another Grand Slam quarterfinal, let alone a semifinal, with his best showings back-to-back runs to the fourth round at the Australian Open. And then came 2020.
Despite the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, 2020 has proven to be one of the most successful seasons, if not the most successful, of Carreno Busta’s career. Although he did not win a singles title, in doubles Carreno Busta won the biggest title of his career, partnering with Alex de Minaur to win the Cincinnati Masters, relocated to New York this year, taking down doubles specialists Jamie Murray and Neal Skupski in the final.
Carreno Busta also had plenty of success at the Grand Slams this year. After a disappointing first week exit at the Australian Open, the Spaniard regrouped when the season resumed and showed what he was capable of. At the US Open, Carreno Busta played superbly, even if he did benefit from some good fortune. After all, despite the understandable focus on Novak Djokovic’s fourth-round default, Carreno Busta had been about to serve for the first set against Djokovic when the Serbian was disqualified.
Then against Shapovalov in the quarterfinals, he recovered from losing the fourth set to love to win what was one of the matches of the season in five sets. In that match, Carreno Busta was able to absorb the Canadian’s power and wear him down from the baseline. It was a textbook example of why Shapovalov’s flashier game doesn’t make the Canadian the more talented player. Carreno Busta said afterwards: ‘I’m destroyed, but I’m very, very happy. It’s incredible to be back in the semifinals again’.
In the semifinals, Carreno Busta found himself two sets to love up against Alexander Zverev, only for a slight injury and a rise in Zverev’s level to derail his chances of reaching his first Major final. Still, it was a tournament to remember for Carreno Busta and he maintained his impressive level at the French Open. In Paris, the Spaniard dropped only one set on his way to the quarterfinals, scoring an impressive victory in the third round against his compatriot Roberto Bautista Agut, the 10th seed.
Then in the quarterfinals against Djokovic, Carreno Busta showed that his US Open performance against the Serb was no fluke. He took the first set off of Djokovic, who made rather a slow start to the match, and was competitive in the others, threatening to wear Djokovic down. But ultimately the world #1’s all-court game was too much. Still, Carreno Busta had proven yet again that he could not be counted out, even against the very best in the world.
Just this week, Carreno Busta proved it again at the Paris Masters. He completely neutralised Jan-Lennard Struff and Norbert Gombos, big hitters who typically thrive in indoor conditions. Then, against Rafael Nadal, he came to within two games of his first win against his illustrious compatriot, but fell just short. Even so, Carreno Busta made Nadal work for his opportunities and even got the better of the 20-time Grand Slam champion in a number of rallies.
Carreno Busta’s game is fairly simple, regardless of the surface, but extremely difficult to execute nonetheless. He plays with incredible consistency and accurate placement, keeps the ball deep enough that his opponents struggle to attack, and turns up the heat on his groundstrokes when necessary. His serve is typically well-placed and with enough pace to make opponents uncomfortable, even if it is not a major weapon.
However, the Spaniard does have his detractors. Nick Kyrgios has emerged as one of Carreno Busta’s most vocal critics, dismissing the Spaniard’s achievements and creating an ugly scene between the two. As reported in Tennishead, Kyrgios stated that ‘if clay didn’t exist, dude wouldn’t of even been close to top 50’. But Kyrgios is severely misinformed. Carreno Busta’s results on hard courts, both on the regular ATP Tour and at the Majors, have actually been better than his clay-court results
In fact, Carreno Busta has won all of his four ATP Tour titles on hard courts, as well as twice making a Major semifinal on the surface, a feat he has not achieved on the clay. It’s also worth noting, at least at the Majors, that Carreno Busta has enjoyed more success than Kyrgios, with the Australian having made just one Grand Slam quarterfinal on a hard court, at the Australian Open in 2015, although he is four years younger than Carreno Busta.
And it makes sense that Carreno Busta is better on hard courts. At ATP-level, mere consistency isn’t enough, a certain level of power has to be present too. The faster hard courts accentuate Carreno Busta’s power and allow him to hit through opponent’s more easily. He has spoken about the importance of an aggressive attitude on the surface. Talking about adjustments he made against Shapovalov in the US Open quarterfinals, Carreno Busta said: ‘I push a little bit more from the baseline. I play inside the court. I trying to be aggressive’.
He was rewarded with one of the finest victories of his career. Now, ranked 16th in the world, his season is officially over after his withdrawal from the Sofia Open and Carreno Busta will have the opportunity to take time to reflect on his stellar 2020. One that will certainly go down as an incredibly successful season, even if he did not win an ATP singles title. He proved, despite what Kyrgios said, that he is a force on clay and hard courts.
And, perhaps most importantly, that his run to the 2017 US Open semifinals was far from a fluke. Carreno Busta is a top player on the ATP Tour. And he’s here to stay.
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