Sharapova slump at Australian Open opens door for Azarenka

The Australian Open lost its second major drawcard in as many days on Monday when an injury-plagued Maria Sharapova was bundled out, opening the door wider to Victoria Azarenka who coasted into the last eight.

Russia's Sharapova, the world number three, was stunned by Slovak Dominika Cibulkova, a day after the shock defeat of top seed Serena Williams.

In contrast, defending champion Azarenka marched on, blasting past young American Sloane Stephens in straight sets.

After crashing 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 to the 20th seed, Sharapova revealed she was carrying a hip injury, but refused to blame it for the loss.

"I mean, those aches and pains are expected when you spend a long time on the court. You just have to play through it," said the four-time Grand Slam winner.

She added: "I think it was just because I played a lot. This is only my second tournament back, so it was those types of things that are expected."

Sharapova only returned to the tour in Brisbane this month after a long layoff for a shoulder injury, and she endured two hard-fought matches in intense heat ahead of Cibulkova.

The Slovak had never been beyond the fourth round in six previous attempts in Melbourne. The win sets up a quarter-final against Romanian 11th seed Simona Halep, who beat Serbia's Jelena Jankovic.

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

Azarenka's 6-3, 6-2 defeat of Stephens set up an encounter against either fifth seed Agnieszka Radwanska or exciting young Spaniard Garbine Muguruza for a place in the semi-finals, where Halep or Cibulkova will await the winner.

The Belarusian hasn't dropped a set and is starting to hit top form as she moves deeper into the tournament with her winning streak at Melbourne Park stretching to 18 matches.

"It was a tough match but I was ready to battle for as long as it took," said Azarenka, who is well-placed to become the first woman to win the title in three consecutive years since Martina Hingis between 1997-99.

"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," she added of Rod Laver Arena.

It was her first meeting with 20-year-old Stephens, the 13th seed, since their controversial last-four clash here in 2013.

During that match, Azarenka walked off court for a medical timeout after Stephens had saved five match points and broken the Belarusian.

She returned after a slow handclap from the crowd and Stephens won only three more points, losing 6-1, 6-4 and leading to accusations of gamesmanship. Azarenka later said she was troubled by a rib injury.

One of the tournament surprise packages so far has been Halep, who was voted the WTA's most improved player of 2013 and reached her first Grand Slam quarter-final by beating former world number one Jankovic.

Halep, who roared back from a mid-match wobble to win 6-4, 2-6, 6-0, said it was a dream come true to be in the last eight.

"Before the season I said my dream is to play a quarter-final in a Grand Slam. So my dream is true and I'm really happy," said the Romanian.

The result extends eighth seed Jankovic's long search for a maiden Grand Slam success. The 28-year-old is yet to improve on her runs to three semi-finals in 2007 and 2008.

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