Cibulkova ends Sharapova’s Australian Open hopes
Nadal and Murray both through to men’s quarter-finals in Melbourne
Slovakia’s Dominika Cibulkova celebrates after she defeated Maria Sharapova in their fourth-round match at the Australian Open in Melbourne. Photograph: Franck Robichon/EPA
Maria Sharapova joined Serena Williams in making an early exit from the Australian Open on Monday but defending champion Victoria Azarenka swept into the quarter-finals with an 18th straight victory at Melbourne Park.
A day after Ana Ivanovic’s stunning upset of Williams blew open the top half of the draw, third seed Sharapova was also scratched from the title race with a 3-6 6-4 6-1 loss to Slovakian Dominika Cibulkova.
Hindered by a hip niggle, the 2008 champion admitted that the year’s first Grand Slam had probably come a little early after she missed the US Open and back end of last season with a shoulder injury.
“I certainly would have loved to play a little bit more before playing a Grand Slam, but this is the chance that I was given,” the Russian said.
“It’s tough. I will be genuine about it. It’s never easy (but) it’s moments like this that ultimately shape you and make you who you are, and that’s how you bounce back.”
As the only surviving top three seed left in the women’s draw, Azarenka looks to be running out of serious challengers as she charts her course towards a third successive title.
Her 6-3 6-2 victory over Sloane Stephens had none of the edge of last year’s semi-final, when the Belarusian took a medical timeout after blowing five match points, and she sealed a comfortable win in 91 minutes.
Azarenka will play fifth seed Agnieszka Radwanska, who defeated Spain’s Garbine Muguruza 6-1 6-3 in the night session on Rod Laver Arena. Azarenka has won their last seven meetings, with Radwanska’s most recent set against the second seed coming in Melbourne two years ago.
The second seed denied that the departure of Williams and Sharapova left her and last year’s losing finalist Li Na as favourites for the title.
“I don’t consider anybody as the favourite, I just go out there and play my best,” she said.
“We’ve seen over the last couple of days that somebody can bring their best game on any given day. You have to stay alert.”
Cibulkova’s reward for beating Sharapova is a quarter-final against Simona Halep, who crouched down and let out a huge roar after a crunching forehand winner gave her a 6-4 2-6 6-0 victory over eighth seed Jelena Jankovic.
The Romanian was named most improved player on the women’s tour last year after winning six tournaments and has been in impressive form on her way to her first appearance in the last eight at a Grand Slam.
A ruffled Rafa Nadal fumed at the chair umpire after being called for multiple time violations on serve but composed himself to fend off a gallant Kei Nishikori and reach the quarter-finals.
Top seed Nadal had come hurtling into the match with a brutal demolition of Gael Monfils, but encountered a far different beast in the 16th seeded Japanese, who broke his serve for the first time in the tournament and rattled the Spaniard in a 7-6 (7-3) 7-5 7-6 (7-3) loss on Rod Laver Arena.
Battling fatigue, the impressive Nishikori rallied from 4-1 down to serve for the third set but Nadal broke back to force the high-quality clash into a second tense tiebreak.
The weary Nishikori belted a shot long to give Nadal three match points and the Spaniard sealed it on the first to set up a quarter-final with 22nd seed Grigor Dimitrov.
Andy Murray smashed a racket in a rare display of frustration after being taken to a fourth set before reaching the quarter-finals with a 6-1 6-2 6-7 (6) 6-2 victory over lucky loser Stephane Robert on Monday.
After racing through the first two sets in just over an hour, Wimbledon champion Murray blew a couple of match points in the third and was dragged into a tiebreak by the 33-year-old Frenchman, who won it 8-6.
It was the first set fourth seed Murray had lost in the tournament but, after a change of shirt, he whipped through the fourth set in 28 minutes to seal a quarter-final date with Roger Federer, who emphatically announced his return as a Grand Slam contender by trouncing Jo Wilfried-Tsonga 6-3 7-5 6-4.
The former world number one, coming off a wretched 2013, channelled the halcyon days of his new coach Stefan Edberg, dominating at the net to humble the stunned Frenchman in 112 electrifying minutes under the lights of Rod Laver Arena.
Having suffered early exits at Wimbledon and the US Open, Federer muscled into his 41st Grand Slam quarter-final, equalling the record of American Jimmy Connors in the professional era.