x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

‘Cosy’ Azarenka advances to Australian Open quarter-finals as Sharapova makes shock exit

The women's quarter-final is just about set, with Sharapova and Jelena Jankovic the latest top seeds out on Monday, while Azarenka cruised on looking like the Australian Open favourite.

Victoria Azarenka is the prohibitive women's favourite at the Australian Open after two of the other top-3 seeds fell in the fourth round. Made Nagi / EPA
Victoria Azarenka is the prohibitive women's favourite at the Australian Open after two of the other top-3 seeds fell in the fourth round. Made Nagi / EPA

Dominika Cibulkova provided another seismic shock at the Australian Open Monday as she sent injury-hobbled Maria Sharapova crashing out, just a day after Serena Williams went the same way.

The diminutive Slovakian enjoyed one of the biggest wins of her career, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1, a result which also did a big favour for defending champion Victoria Azarenka.

Azarenka, now the hot favourite as she guns for a rare hat-trick of Australian Open wins, stepped up her bid when she flattened old foe Sloane Stephens 6-3, 6-2.

“I’m glad I could find my rhythm and go for my shots. I just love playing here. It feels so cosy, it feels like home,” Azarenka said.

The Belarusian world No 2 will face either Agnieszka Radwanska or Garbine Muguruza in the quarter-finals, with Cibulkova heading into a clash with Romania’s Simona Halep, who beat No 8 seed Jelena Jankovic 6-4, 2-6, 6-0.

With Sharapova, the Russian world No 2, and top seed Williams both out, the women’s last eight has an unfamiliar feel.

Halep and Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard are both first-time Slam quarter-finalists, while neither Williams’ conquerer Ana Ivanovic nor Flavia Pennetta are regulars at the business end.

It was a dismal day for the statuesque Russian, cutting short what has been a difficult return from months out with her troublesome right shoulder injury.

Sharapova blamed her tough workouts against Karin Knapp and Alize Cornet after a left hip injury flared against Cibulkova, who was fit and motivated enough to take full advantage.

Sharapova was too strong for Cibulkova in the first set but errors crept in in the second and after the Slovak levelled at a set each, she left the court for a medical timeout.

And Sharapova, rated as the world’s highest paid female athlete, succumbed tamely in the third set as she conceded three breaks to keep her search for a fifth major title on hold.

“I think it’s a success (the tournament) in terms of that I’m back and that I’m healthy. That’s quite important. Otherwise I wouldn’t give myself a chance to play,” she said.

“So on that note, yeah, I have to look at the positives and see where I have come from in four or five months. I haven’t played a lot of tennis in those six months.”

Cibulkova had never been beyond the fourth round in six previous attempts in Melbourne, although she has made the last eight at all the other three Grand Slams.

“I was 100 percent sure I could win. I never doubted myself even when I lost the first set,” said the 20th seed. “I knew what I needed to do. The most important thing is to believe in yourself.”

Azarenka later coasted past Stephens, erasing memories of last year’s semi-final when she was accused of gamesmanship and slow-handclapped by the crowd after taking a medical timeout at a crucial moment.

The women’s quarter-finals will include, at most, just three of the top-8 seeds, and possibly only two. No 14 Ana Ivanovic (def. No 1 Serena Williams) faces No 30 Eugenie Bouchard, who came out of 7-seed Sara Errani’s section. Errani lost in the first round to German Julia Gorges.

Fourth-seeded Chinese Li Na faces No 28 Italian Flavia Pennetta, who emerged from 6 seed Petra Kvitova’s section. Kvitova was also a first-round loser, to Thailand’s Luksika Kumkhum.

Halep and Cibulkova took care of Jankovic and Sharapova, and Radwanska will look to avoid the fate of some of her similarly high-rated peers against Muguruza.