Nothing was likely to beat the shock of seeing Serena Williams fall at the Australian Open but yesterday Maria Sharapova did her best to match it when she went down to Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia, missing a golden opportunity to add to her grand slam tally.
No-one would have been happier to have seen the back of Williams than Sharapova, who has not beaten the American in almost a decade. However, her body failed her as a hip strain helped 20th seed Cibulkova to record a 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory for a spot in the last eight here for the first time.
It was a disappointing end for Sharapova, who had battled through the opening rounds, in just her second tournament after three months off through injury. But Cibulkova, who at 5ft 3in is one of the shortest players on Tour, is like a terrier on the court and ground her way to victory.
Loading article content
Sharapova took a medical timeout before the start of the deciding set and later admitted that her hip had bothered her. "I don't think it's rocket science," she said, adding it was nothing more serious than a strain. "Just when you play a lot of tennis, you're going to get these types of aches and pains and certain movements that you feel it on."
As someone used to more than her fair share of injuries, Sharapova insisted that she expected to recover quickly. "It's easy just to be successful, but it's how many times you're able to come back from the tough moments and losses and injuries that really define who you are as an athlete," she said.
"That's why I'm here, because I believe I still can be up there and certainly can play better, that's for sure."
Cibulkova has now reached the quarter-finals of all four grand slam events and even though she accused Sharapova of putting her off by deliberately catching her ball toss several times, the Slovak is focused on staying calm.
"I love what I'm doing and I don't want to put too much pressure [on myself] because I don't want to suffer on the court," she said. "I'm a very good player, so I don't want to have two opponents, the real one and me."
Her last-eight opponent will be another surprise package, 11th seed Simona Halep of Romania, who beat Jelena Jankovic 6-4, 2-6, 6-0. Halep cruised through the third set after the Serb used up all her three challenges in the opening game.
Halep won six titles in the last five months of 2013 and is now set to break into the top 10.
The projected battle between two-time defending champion Victoria Azarenka and Sloane Stephens - 12 months on from a spat in their semi-final here - failed to materialise as the Belarussian won 6-3, 6-2.
Stephens did turn up the heat a little when she fired a backhand into the groin of Azarenka but the second seed was too focused to worry and was a convincing winner.
She will play the No. 5 seed, Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland, whose first three games of a 6-1, 6-3 win over unseeded Spaniard Garbine Muguruza lasted a full half hour.