By Ian Ransom
Rafa Nadal restored a semblance of order to the Australian Open on Friday after Italian Andreas Seppi sent shockwaves through the tournament by toppling Roger Federer in one of the greatest Melbourne Park upsets in recent memory.
Under the lights of Rod Laver Arena, third seed Nadal charged into the fourth round with a demolition of Dudi Sela, all but banishing memories of his painful five-setter against Tim Smyczek two days before.
Federer, a four-time Australian Open winner, faces a more lasting agony after his 11-year run to the Melbourne semi-finals was sensationally ended on his centre court domain.
A 30-year-old battler on a 23-match losing streak against top-10 opponents, 46th-ranked Seppi scrapped like a streetfighter to triumph 6-4 7-6(5) 4-6 7-6(5), notching his first win against the Swiss master at the 11th attempt.
With the terraces shrieking through the decisive tiebreaker, Seppi was superb in the nerve-jangling clinches, and the lunging forehand passing shot that sealed his finest win will feature on highlight reels for years to come.
“It was for sure one of the important shots of my life,” the unshaven Italian told reporters.
“Against Roger, I never went close. I never had the chance. To have this win in my career, it’s for sure something big.”
Having lived dangerously against Italian Simone Bolelli in the previous round, second seed Federer revealed dark premonitions had circled his mind as early as Thursday.
“I felt for some reason yesterday and this morning it was not going to be very simple today,” he said.
“Even in practice I still felt the same way. I was just hoping it was one of those feelings you sometimes have and it’s totally not true and you just come out and you play a routine match. Yeah, it was a mistake.”
If Sharapova had any hang-ups from her second-round scare against Alexandra Panova, she concealed them well during a 6-1 6-1 rout of Kazakh Zarina Diyas.
Her boyfriend Grigor Dimitrov had watched the Panova match with his heart in his mouth.
On Friday, it was Sharapova’s turn for nail-biting on the sidelines as the young Bulgarian contender was dragged into a five-set dog-fight by Marcos Baghdatis.
The big-hearted Cypriot, a famous finalist in 2006, rode rowdy support from Melbourne’s ethnic Greek fans on Showcourt Three but lost the battle of fitness 4-6 6-3 3-6 6-3 6-3.
Federer’s loss tore open the bottom half of the draw, opening the door for ‘Big Four’ contenders and upstarts like Dimitrov to challenge the establishment.
Nadal, on the comeback trail after injury and illness wiped out the last half of his 2014, showed no signs of the cramping that blighted his previous match against Smyczek as he roared past Israeli Sela 6-1 6-0 7-5.
“I feel I was very lucky to be through because at 2-1 (on Wednesday) I thought I was going to be on the plane to Mallorca,” Nadal said courtside.
“In terms of injuries, I feel free. No pain. In terms of tennis. You need to play matches.”
Briton Andy Murray also appeared near peak condition in trouncing Portuguese Joao Sousa 6-1 6-1 7-5 at Hisense Arena.
But he will have to face his Wimbledon nemesis for a place in the quarter-finals.
Dimitrov, who ended Murray’s title defence at his home grand slam, will be the sixth-seeded Scot’s first real test.
Another young player expected to rock the tennis order, Canadian seventh seed Genie Bouchard continued her ominous form with a 7-5 6-0 win over Caroline Garcia.
Third seed Simona Halep and China’s Peng Shuai, taking on the mantle of retired champion Li Na, also advanced.
Australia’s dreams of a first men’s champion in nearly 40 years remain alive, with young talents Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic reaching the last 16, the first time for two locals since Lleyton Hewitt and Mark Philippousis in 2004.
Results from the Australian Open Women’s Singles Round 3 matches on Friday
2-Maria Sharapova (Russia) beat 31-Zarina Diyas (Kazakhstan) 6-1 6-1
3-Simona Halep (Romania) beat Bethanie Mattek-Sands (U.S.) 6-4 7-5
Irina Begu (Romania) beat Carina Witthoeft (Germany) 6-4 6-4
7-Eugenie Bouchard (Canada) beat Caroline Garcia (France) 7-5 6-0
Yanina Wickmayer (Belgium) beat 14-Sara Errani (Italy) 4-6 6-4 6-3
21-Peng Shuai (China) beat Yaroslava Shvedova (Kazakhstan) 7-6(7) 6-3
Julia Goerges (Germany) beat Lucie Hradecka (Czech Republic) 7-6(6) 7-5
10-Ekaterina Makarova (Russia) beat 22-Karolina Pliskova (Czech Republic) 6-4 6-4
Results from the Australian Open Men’s Singles Round 3 matches on Friday
3-Rafa Nadal (Spain) beat Dudi Sela (Israel) 6-1 6-0 7-5
Nick Kyrgios (Australia) beat Malek Jaziri (Tunisia) 6-3 7-6(6) 6-1
14-Kevin Anderson (South Africa) beat 24-Richard Gasquet (France) 6-4 7-6(3) 7-6(6)
Bernard Tomic (Australia) beat Samuel Groth (Australia) 6-4 7-6(8) 6-3
Andreas Seppi (Italy) beat 2-Roger Federer (Switzerland) 6-4 7-6(5) 4-6 7-6(5)
6-Andy Murray (Britain) beat Joao Sousa (Portugal) 6-1 6-1 7-5
10-Grigor Dimitrov (Bulgaria) beat Marcos Baghdatis (Cyprus) 4-6 6-3 3-6 6-3 6-3
7-Tomas Berdych (Czech Republic) beat Viktor Troicki (Serbia) 6-4 6-3 6-4