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Australian Open 2014: Maria Sharapova crashes out with fourth-round defeat to Dominika Cibulkova

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Maria Sharapova followed Serena Williams out of the Australian Open after losing in the fourth round to Dominika Cibulkova.

Like world number one Williams, who struggled with back problems during her defeat by Ana Ivanovic on Sunday, Sharapova appeared hampered physically during her 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 defeat.

The third seed required off-court treatment after dropping the second set and there was no way back.

Cibulkova, seeded 20th, is through to her first Australian Open quarter-final and will play either Jelena Jankovic or Simona Halep next.

Sharapova had not had an easy time of it during the first three rounds, most notably a three-and-a-half-hour battle in extreme heat against Karin Knapp in round two.

She admitted after struggling past Alize Cornet in the third round that she still felt rusty following the shoulder problems that brought an early end to her 2013 season. Sharapova said a hip problem had hampered her but that she was happy just to be back playing.

“I have a bit of a strain the trainer told me in the hip area,” she said. “I mean, those aches and pains are expected when you spend a long time on the court. You just have to play through it.”

“I think it’s a success in terms of that I’m back and that I’m healthy. That’s quite important. Otherwise I wouldn’t give myself a chance to play.

“So I certainly would have loved to play a little bit more before playing a Grand Slam, but this is the chance that I was given.”

Initially things looked much better for the Russian on Monday as she broke the Cibulkova serve in the first game.

Her serve has been wobbly and she dropped it serving for the opening set but responded with another break of Cibulkova’s to take it.

Slovakian Cibulkova had caused Sharapova problems in the past, winning two of their previous five meetings despite giving away nearly a foot in height.

And the 24-year-old was soon on the offensive in the second set, winning five games in a row as the Sharapova’s unforced error count began to climb rapidly.

But one thing the Russian never lacks is fight, and instead of moving on to the decider, Sharapova battled, clawing back four games.

She could not complete the job, though, Cibulkova recovering from a double fault on her first set point to finally clinch it on her second.

Sharapova then called the trainer and left court, with the problem not immediately obvious, although she was clearly struggling with her movement.

Cibulkova took advantage with an immediate break of the Sharapova serve at the start of the deciding set and, although the third seed staved off break points in the third game, she was barely hanging on.

Cibulkova broke again to lead 4-1 and this time there was not even a hint of a comeback from Sharapova.

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

Her 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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