Silent assassin Agnieszka Radwanska ended Victoria Azarenka’s bid for a hat-trick of titles at Melbourne Park on Wednesday and reached her maiden Australian Open semi-final with a 6-1 5-7 6-0 win.
The crafty Pole frustrated Azarenka with a scrambling, cat-and-mouse game early and completely dismantled the big Belarusian in the third set to close out the match in exactly two hours under bright sunshine at Rod Laver Arena.
Fifth seed Radwanska’s triumph ensured the top three seeds have all been eliminated early, with world number one Serena Williams and third-ranked Maria Sharapova already dumped from the tournament.
The 24-year-old Radwanska will play 20th-seeded Slovakian Dominika Cibulkova for a place in the final.
“The best quarter-final for sure,” Radwanska beamed in a courtside interview after snapping a seven-match losing streak to the world number two.
“I have played a couple of quarter-finals before and I said to myself one day I need to take one step forward and make the semi-final and final. I’m so, so happy that I did it finally.
“It was always hard. I have lost so many times against her before and I knew she was a very great player, very consistent so I just knew that I had to play my best tennis.
“Play aggressive and go for every shot that I could. That was what I was trying to do and it worked today.”
Double defending champion Azarenka was a picture of torment, spraying unforced errors all over the centre court as she slumped to a 5-0 deficit in the first set.
She finally held serve in the sixth game and pummelled her legs with her fists, letting out an angst-filled shriek to try to shake herself out of her stupor.
She was powerless to prevent Radwanska from closing out the set, however, when she bamboozled the Belarusian with a deft drop-shot that was harmlessly pushed into the tramlines.
Azarenka rallied and pounced as Radwanska served to stay in the set at 6-5, blasting a string of fierce returns to bring up set points and levelled the match with a searing crosscourt winner.
The Belarusian dipped again, though, double-faulting to bring up a second break point in the opening game of the third set, and then losing serve when she floated a backhand long.
After Radwanska held for 2-0, Azarenka needlessly blasted a volley into the back of the court raising jeers from the crowd, and promptly lost the next four points to go a double-break down.
Tested on serve at 4-0, Radwanska raised huge roars from the terraces with a succession of exquisite points, scrambling down a series of would-be winners to hold, prompting Azarenka to crumble in the final game of the match.
“I just didn’t have the focus on finishing the point… She really took advantage of that,” Azarenka told reporters.
“My game wasn’t there as I wanted it … She was aggressive, she was making everything.”
In the other quarter-final big-stage experience proved the deciding factor for Dominika Cibulkova as she marched into her second grand slam semi-final with an impressive 6-3 6-0 demolition of Simona Halep.
The 24-year-old had made the quarter-finals at each of the other three grand slams and completed the set when she beat 2008 champion Maria Sharapova in the fourth round on Monday.
By contrast, 11th seed Halep had achieved her best grand slam result in making the last eight at Melbourne Park and Cibulkova sensed her Romanian opponent would be battling nerves.
“I think it was also important today because I already was on the stage,” Cibulkova told reporters.
“I already played a couple of quarter-finals in the grand slam (and) I already did semi-finals in a grand slam,” she added of her loss to Dinara Safina at the French Open in 2009.
“So that was my experience today. I was ready for it. It was for me like every other match so I didn’t take it … too serious (and) put myself under pressure.”
Cibulkova, one of the shorter players on the WTA Tour at 1.61-metres tall (5’3″), used that relaxed approach to play her natural game, which is based on quick feet and deceptively powerful ground strokes.
The 20th seed also attacked Halep’s serve and controlled many of the rallies by keeping the Romanian pinned deep behind the baseline.
“I knew I have to be aggressive,” Cibulkova said of her game plan for the counter-punching Halep.
“Even if you play well, you play fast, she’s there at the ball … I knew I had to step into the court and play a lot to her weaknesses, use my backhand down the line that she was not expecting, to play some (unexpected) shots.
“When I play my great tennis, I’m really aggressive … that’s what I do the best.”
Cibulkova’s aggression and risk-taking paid off as she broke early in both sets and used that advantage to put pressure on Halep, who admitted to being a bag of nerves before the match.
“I had emotions, big emotions, and I couldn’t manage,” Halep said. “Before the match I was very nervous and I didn’t feel the ball at all. I couldn’t move my body and I couldn’t play.
“Nothing is easy. There is pressure you can feel from everywhere … so I still want to do the same thing what I came into the tournament.”