Sabalenka, Pliskova in quarterfinals after early exit of Swiatek, Gauff

Aryna Sabalenka, who is yet to drop a set in the Australian Open this year – on Monday defeated 12th seed Belinda Bencic in straight sets 7-5, 6-2 while former world number one Karolina Pliskova kept herself on track for a maiden Grand Slam title, romping past Zhang Shuai 6-0, 6-4 and into the Australian Open quarter-finals.

With world number one Iga Swaitek facing defeat at the hands of Elena Rybakina a day earlier, Belarus’ Sabalenka is increasingly looking like a genuine contender to take out the title.

Meanwhile, Pliskova – the 30th seed Czech – continued her confident run at Melbourne Park with a sizzling serving display, banging down 12 aces to destroy the 23rd seed from China on the Kia Arena showcourt.

Earlier, the early exit of top seeded players from the Australian Open continues after Swiatek and seventh seed Coco Gauff were bundled out in the fourth round on Sunday in the women’s single competition.

It means this year’s Australian Open will be the first Grand Slam tournament in the open era where the top two seeds in both the men’s and women’s singles draws have lost prior to the quarter-finals.

These results mean only two of the top 10 seeded players – Jessica Pegula of the US and Aryna Belarus’s Sabalenka – have qualified for the quarterfinals this year.

However, third seed Stefanos Tsitsipas in the men’s competition avoided a similar fate by claiming a thrilling 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 6-3 win over Italian Jannik Sinner and keep his dreams of a maiden Grand Slam title alive.

“It was a long match. I feel like I’ve spent a century on this court,” Tsitsipas said of the contest, which lasted just over four hours. “It was a ripper, as they say here. I can feel my face burning from the effort today.”

Swiatek was sent packing by Rybakina at Rod Laver Arena, the Pole falling 6-4, 6-4 to the Kazak Wimbledon winner who started her tournament in the Melbourne Park wilderness of Court 13.

Rybakina shrugged off the scheduling snub before the fourth round showdown but used it as fuel in her first appearance on centre court as a tightly wound Swiatek slowly unravelled.

“I felt the pressure, and I felt that I don’t want to lose instead of I want to win,” said Swiatek, who dominated last season with two Grand Slam wins. “I felt like I took a step back in terms of how I approach these tournaments, and I maybe wanted it a little bit too hard.”

Rybakina, the 22nd seed, might have expected to face Gauff in the quarterfinal but the much-hyped American teenager was upset 7-5, 6-3 by Jelena Ostapenko, the forgotten Grand Slam winner of women’s tennis.

The 2017 French Open champion thrashed 30 winners past Gauff on Margaret Court Arena, her last two sealing the match in style to leave the 18-year-old in tears at her post-match media conference.

“I feel like it was rough,” Gauff told reporters, before breaking down with emotion. “When you play a player like her and she plays really well, it’s like, you know, there’s nothing you can do.”

The win secured a first Australian Open quarterfinal for hard-hitting Ostapenko, as well as the first at a major since her run to the Wimbledon semi-finals in 2018.

Latvia’s first — and only — Grand Slam champion stunned the world when she hoisted the trophy at Roland Garros as an unseeded 20-year-old. She has had mostly lean years since but never doubted she would return to the spotlight again.

“My life changed a lot (after the 2017 French Open), so I needed a few years to really get used to what happened because I was really young,” she said. “I always knew and believed in my game. If I play well, I can beat almost anyone.”

Khachanov had a much easier passage, hammering Japan’s Yoshihito Nishioka 6-0, 6-0, 7-6 (4) at John Cain Arena. The Russian has now reached the quarter-finals at all four Grand Slams.

“Obviously, yeah, that gives me some kind of compliments on what I achieve so far, and I’m just happy to do it. Hopefully I can continue even further on even bigger things,” he said.

While the high seeds have tumbled, American Jessica Pegula has been rock solid and reached her third consecutive quarter-final at Melbourne Park by beating Czech 20th seed Barbora Krejcikova 7-5, 6-2.

Third seed Pegula will face 24th-seeded twice champion Victoria Azarenka, who fought back from a set down to beat Zhu Lin 4-6, 6-1, 6-4 and end the Chinese star’s impressive run.

Zhu, who beat sixth seed Maria Sakkari in the last round, started well and broke the 2012 and 2013 champion in the opening game before allowing her back, only to pull away from 3-3.

With the first set in the bag, world number 87 Zhu then came under pressure and Azarenka took the second set 6-1.

The Belarusian broke at 4-4 in the decider before showing composure to defend two break points and serve out for the win.


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