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Osaka’s run stopped by Azarenka

AFP-JIJI, Kyodo

Two-time champion Victoria Azarenka swept past up-and-coming Japanese star Naomi Osaka Saturday to set up an Australian Open fourth-round showdown with Barbora Strycova.

The former world No. 1 was in ominous touch as she thrashed the teenage qualifier 6-1, 6-1 in 56 minutes on Rod Laver Arena to make it eight consecutive last-16 appearances at Melbourne Park.

It opens up a path to the quarterfinals for the Belarusian, with Spanish third seed Garbine Muguruza no longer in her way after she was shocked by the Czech veteran Strycova in straight sets.

Azarenka, 27, has been in top early-season form, winning the Brisbane International and racing through her opening three matches in Melbourne with the loss of just five games.

After a torrid two years battling injuries, the 14th seed is back on a roll and is a clear threat to world No. 1 and defending champion Serena Williams, who she could meet in the final.

“It wasn’t easy, especially against someone I had not played before. There was a lot of adaptation in the beginning,” she said. “I’m glad I stayed focused.

“I just feel happy and want to give everything I have in the court. Every day I’m living the dream,” she added.

Osaka, who has a Haitian father and has lived most of her life in the United States, turned heads after coolly working her way past 18th seed Elina Svitolina in the second round.

With two wins in her Grand Slam debut, she has won plaudits, including from Williams.

But the learning curve was too steep for the world No. 127 against the accomplished Azarenka, who said this week she was in great shape “body-wise, spirit-wise, everything-wise.”

Against the odds, the 18-year-old Osaka broke at love in the first game, causing gasps from the crowd who had only just witnessed Muguruza’s upset by Strycova.

But it was a minor hiccup for the Belarusian who, grunting at full volume, quickly recovered and evened up the match when Osaka sent a double-handed backhand wide.

Azarenka was just warming up and she began turning on the style with some blistering forehands and effective net work to break again in the fourth game and again in the seventh.

Osaka could only watch and learn from a player peaking at the right time as Azarenka wrapped up the set with a drive volley.

Osaka admitted that she had played too defensively and was naturally disappointed with the final score. “I was a bit tired,” she said. “I played too defensively and the score was terrible. Azarenka is a fantastic player. She attacked me from the corners.”

In men’s action Stan Wawrinka won his 400th tour-level match with a 6-2, 6-3, 7-6 (7-3) victory over Lukas Rosol in a third-round match.

It marks the fourth year in a row Wawrinka has made it to the fourth round at Melbourne Park.