MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – World No. 1 Rafael Nadal fought off a spirited challenge from Kei Nishikori to march through to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open on Monday.
The Spaniard won 7-6 (7-3), 7-5, 7-6 (7-3) in 3 hours, 17 minutes and will play Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov in the last eight.
Nishikori, under new coach Michael Chang, pressed Nadal all the way and had his chances to take sets off the top seed only to fall down on forehand errors.
Asia’s most accomplished men’s star said he was proud of his efforts, but also disappointed to lose his sixth straight match to the mighty Spaniard and fail to take a set.
“First of all, I’m really disappointed because I had some chances to at least get one set, and I couldn’t,” said Nishikori. “I mean, both tiebreaks he was playing much better. He raised his level and he was playing good.
“But a couple points was amazing points. I thought I was playing good. Some important points I couldn’t get and the games can change completely. So, you know, I think that was the best game I have against Rafa.”
Nadal was angered when he was called for a time violation by chair umpire Eva Asderaki at deuce while 4-4 at a critical time in the third set, but he regathered his composure to win the match in his second tiebreaker.
The 13-time Grand Slam champion’s renowned fighting qualities came to the fore when he won the big points.
“He’s a fantastic player and Kei is able to hit the ball very early and the ball was coming back very quick,” said Nadal, who is now on a nine-match winning streak.
“It was difficult for me to take position inside the court and I was close to losing every set so I congratulate Kei and I feel he will have a great season.
“He is always very quick around the court, but today with his backhand today, he was able to take the ball quicker and that’s why I was struggling for my position on the court.”
Nadal said Nishikori had come a long way in a short time and had a bright future.
“It’s always tough against him on every surface,” said the Spaniard. “He’s a very complete player. He’s very quick, he’s able to do the most difficult thing in tennis, that’s taking the ball early and changing the direction. He’s able to do it easy.
“Kei is a potential top 10 player.”
Sharapova bows out
Two-time defending champion Victoria Azarenka saw another of her main adversaries crash out of the Australian Open on Monday, while Wimbledon champion Andy Murray faced a tougher-than-expected match to advance to the quarterfinals at Melbourne Park.
Maria Sharapova joined Serena Williams as fourth-round casualties, leaving Azarenka a potentially easier run to the women’s final. Sharapova was beaten by No. 20 Dominika Cibulkova in the match on Rod Laver Arena immediately before Azarenka defeated Sloane Stephens, the last remaining American in the singles draw.
Murray wasted four match points in the third set — including two in the tiebreaker — before dominating the fourth set against lucky loser Stephane Robert of France.
Four-time Australian Open champion Roger Federer was never threatened in beating 2008 finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 in a late match. He will play Murray in the quarterfinals on Wednesday.
Third-seeded Sharapova, complaining of a hip ailment, lost 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 after struggling with her serve and making 45 unforced errors. She joins Williams on the sidelines after the top-ranked American lost in three sets Sunday to Ana Ivanovic, ending her 25-match winning streak.
Sharapova had spent the latter months of last year on the sidelines with a right shoulder injury, so she wasn’t expecting much of herself.
“I have to look at the positives and see where I have come from in four or five months,” Sharapova said. “I haven’t played a lot of tennis.”
Azarenka had a 6-3, 6-2 win over No. 13-seeded Stephens, the player who beat Williams in the quarterfinals here last year and then lost to Azarenka in the semifinals under controversial circumstances. Azarenka took a medical time out when Stephens started to gain momentum in that match, then came back to advance to the final and subsequently win her second Australian Open trophy.
She wasn’t getting carried away Monday with the apparent ease of the draw with Williams and Sharapova gone.
“The players who beat those players deserve all the credit because they’ve been better, so they are dangerous and they are competitive,” Azarenka said.
Azarenka, who is on an 18-match winning streak at Melbourne Park, will next play No. 5 Agnieszka Radwanska, who beat Spain’s Garbine Muguruza 6-1, 6-3 in the final fourth-round match Monday night.
Three-time Australian Open finalist Murray ended the run of Robert, wasting match points in the third set and smashing his racket after the tiebreaker before advancing 6-1, 6-2, 7-6 (8-6), 6-2.
“He’s a fun player to watch, but not a fun player to play,” Murray said of Robert’s assortment of drop shots and deft groundstrokes.
The racket-smashing was pure frustration.
“Losing that set was frustrating because it obviously means you’re out there another 30, 40 minutes at least, when I would preferably had been in the locker room,” Murray said. “My racket bit the dust. Unfortunate for it.”
Murray said he’s expecting a tough match against Federer, regardless of the Swiss player’s recent drop in the rankings that has seen him seeded sixth here.
“I think last year you could see at periods he was struggling with his back,” Murray said. “And if he’s fully fit, I’ve said all along, he’s always going to be there or thereabouts in the majors, and he’ll give himself opportunities to win more because he’s that good.”
Federer lost to Murray in the semifinals last year in five sets after beating Tsonga in five in the quarterfinals.
“It’s the same draw just one round earlier for me,” Federer said. “I’m happy this time I didn’t play five sets.”
On Tuesday, the first of the quarterfinals begin when Ivanovic plays Eugenie Bouchard and two-time Australian Open finalist Li Na takes on Flavia Pennetta.
In men’s quarterfinals, three-time defending champion Novak Djokovic plays Stanislas Wawrinka and No. 3 David Ferrer takes on No. 7 Tomas Berdych.