Resurgent second seed Maria Sharapova’s Australian Open campaign kicked into overdrive on Sunday as young guns Eugenie Bouchard and Simona Halep scraped into the quarter-finals.
Five-time Grand Slam champion Sharapova demolished China’s Peng Shuai to set up a glamour final eight showdown with Canada’s Bouchard, whose form continues to blow hot and cold as she chases a maiden major.
Third seed Halep of Romania ground out a tough straights win over unseeded Belgian Yanina Wickmayer and will face dangerous Russian 10th seed Ekaterina Makarova, who continued to glide through almost unnoticed.
But it was a fired-up Sharapova, wounded and determined to make a point after almost bombing out in the early rounds, who stamped her authority on the bottom half of the draw.
The 27-year-old routed 21st seed Peng 6-3, 6-0, looking tense and aggressive as she wore down some early resistance from China’s top-ranked player to storm into the quarters at Melbourne Park for the eighth time.
The Russian, who won the Australian title in 2008, can snatch the world number one ranking off arch-rival Serena Williams if she repeats the feat this year.
She has defeated Bouchard in their previous three meetings but was wary of the threat the 20-year-old seventh seed poses, recalling their most recent meeting in the French Open semi-finals last year.
“It was a really tough three setter. She’s been playing incredibly well — confident aggressive tennis,” she said of the player touted as her heir apparent as the world’s most marketable female athlete.
“She’s a big competitor. An aggressive player that likes to take the ball early and dictate points.”
– ‘Perfect doesn’t exist’-
Bouchard, who idolised Sharapova as a child and shares her unrelenting drive, vowed to hit the practice courts after an alarming mid-match slump against unseeded Romanian Irina-Camelia Begu.
The rising star book-ended her match with scintillating tennis in the first and last sets but relaxed in the second.
“I let my level drop. It’s disappointing for me because I want to play so well and I want to be perfect,” she said, pledging to avoid making the same mistake against Sharapova.
“I definitely want to keep playing my game no matter what. Really kind of take it to her, go for my shots. That’s what I want to do on the court. And it’s more fun when I play that way too.”
Halep also faced a torrid time in her 6-4, 6-2 victory over world number 80 Wickmayer.
The 23-year-old Romanian, a quarter-finalist in 2014, dug deep for a win, putting the result down to experience gained last year when she also reached the final at Roland Garros and the semis at Wimbledon.
Halep raged at herself when the match did not go according to plan after she made a strong start, shouting and gesticulating after mistakes.
“Some moments of the match you are frustrated, but it’s normal. I have to accept my mistakes,” she said. “I just want to be perfect on court, but it’s not possible — perfect doesn’t exist.”
In contrast, Makarova was positively serene against unseeded German Julia Goerges, barely breaking a sweat as she defeated the world number 73 6-3, 6-2 to make the quarters for the third time in four years.
The 26-year-old, a US Open semi-finalist last year, has progressed virtually unnoticed, with none of the pressure that comes from being under the spotlight, a situation Sharapova said would not last.
“She’s a player that’s always gone a little bit under the radar, but has produced some really good results in her career, especially at the US Open and here,” Sharapova said.
“I don’t think she should shy away from that.”