MELBOUNE: Former champions Rafa Nadal and Maria Sharapova charged into the quarter-finals of the Australian Open on Sunday, as the guardians of the tennis establishment crushed the grand slam dreams of upstart challengers.
Nadal withstood an early serving barrage from South African beanpole Kevin Anderson in a 7-5 6-1 6-4 masterclass at Rod Laver Arena to continue his brilliant comeback from a 2014 season ravaged by injury and illness.
The Spaniard, who ruled himself out of contention before the tournament, now faces Tomas Berdych for a place in the semi-finals, a man he has mastered in their last 18 matches.
The Czech seventh seed, whose record of pain against Nadal dates back to 2007, overpowered local hope Bernard Tomic 6-2 7-6(3) 6-2.
“The chance to be in the quarter-finals after a tough period of time for me is a fantastic result,” 14-times grand slam champion Nadal said courtside.
“I probably played my best match of the year.”
Ticketholders at Rod Laver Arena may have felt a bit short-changed by the day session, with Nadal’s two-hour nine-minute romp to victory following Sharapova’s 69-minute demolition of Peng Shuai.
U.S. Open semi-finalist Peng, taking the mantle from retired Chinese champion Li Na, stayed with the Russian second seed for seven games, but was blanked in the next eight as Sharapova set up a blockbuster showdown with Canadian sensation Eugenie Bouchard, a 6-1 5-7 6-2 winner over Romanian Irina-Camelia Begu.
Twenty-year-old Bouchard was dubbed ‘the next Sharapova’ as she announced herself in a breakout 2014, and bristles at the comparison which was put to the test at the French Open semi-finals last year.
Sharapova came back from a set down to quash Bouchard that day before going on to win the title and expects another stiff test from the Canadian upstart.
“We all want to create our own path and go through our own career,” the five-times grand slam champion told reporters.
“And we’re all destined for some sort of thing. We work extremely hard at a sport, and that’s what we want to be known for.”
Canada’s first grand slam finalist Bouchard was the first into the last eight, but needed to battle through a mid-match meltdown at Rod Laver Arena.
She gave herself a pep talk during a toilet break between the second and third sets, having inexplicably conceded five games in a row and double-faulted to allow unseeded Begu back to level terms.
“I gave myself a good long hard look in the mirror and I said, ‘Genie, this is unacceptable’ and I really kind of kicked myself in the butt a little bit,” she said in a courtside interview.
There was no need for any soul searching from feisty Russian counter-puncher Ekaterina Makarova, who booked her third Melbourne Park quarter-final of the past four years with a 6-3 6-2 thrashing of Julia Goerges.
Makarova, who famously dumped favourite Serena Williams out of the 2012 tournament, will bid for a maiden semi-final in Melbourne against the winner of third seed Simona Halep and Yanina Wickmayer, the first match of the evening session.
Seventh seed Berdych left only one Australian hope, Nick Kyrgios, in the tournament, after subjecting Tomic to a two-hour thrashing on the second show court at Margaret Court Arena.
“I will need to sit down with my team to prepare the right tactics and strategy,” Berdych said of his impending clash with Nadal.
Sixth seed Andy Murray clashes with his Wimbledon nemesis Grigor Dimitrov in day seven’s blockbluster later in the evening session at Rod Laver Arena. (Reuters)