By JOHN PYE
2014-01-20 11:22 PM
MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) -- When the draw for the Australian Open was made, it wasn't Roger Federer who was being widely touted as the prime contender to claim an 18th major title.
All that hype surrounded Serena Williams, but she was knocked out in the fourth round.
Federer is still three match wins away from that milestone, but after his 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 demolition of No. 10-seeded Jo-Wilfriend Tsonga on Monday night, it's clear he's up for the challenge.
On a day when No. 3 Maria Sharapova was upset by No. 20 Dominika Cibulkova, following top-ranked Williams out of the tournament and opening up the women's draw for defending champion Victoria Azarenka, the leading male contenders on the heavily stacked top half advanced to the quarterfinals.
Progressing along with Federer were top-ranked Rafael Nadal, who had a 7-6 (3), 7-5, 7-6 (3) win over Kei Nishikori -- though he was broken twice and got a time violation in the third set -- and Wimbledon champion Andy Murray, who overcame a racket-smashing, frustrating finish to the third set to beat Stephane Robert 6-1, 6-2, 6-7 (6), 6-2.
Now for the harder part.
Federer is back in the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam for the first time since last year's French Open -- equaling Jimmy Connors' Open-era record with his 41st trip to the last eight in a major. He next plays Murray, a three-time Australian Open finalist. A win could set up a semifinal against Nadal, who next plays first-time major quarterfinalist Grigor Dimitrov.
A win there for Federer would likely set up a final against three-time defending champion Novak Djokovic -- the only other man who has won four Australian titles in the Open era. Djokovic is playing his quarterfinal Tuesday against No. 8 Stan Wawrinka.
"It's a tough thing to do. I don't know if it's been done before," sixth-seeded Federer said of his tough road to the title. "Then again, if you don't embrace that challenge, you might as well not enter the draw. You might as well stay at home and watch other guys battle it out.
"That's what I like. I like playing the best ... and you need to take it to them."
Federer certainly did that against Tsonga, barely dropping a point on serve in the first set and putting the 2008 Australian Open finalist under pressure right away with an early break. The 32-year-old Swiss star was so relentless that Tsonga, aggravated at not being able to threaten Federer at all, screamed and smacked a ball into the crowd after losing an exchange of close volleys.
From Tsonga's side, it looked like he was facing the Federer of old -- before the crisis of confidence, the new racket, and before his record streak of reaching the quarterfinals at 36 consecutive majors came to a halt with a shocking second-round defeat at Wimbledon.
"No, I was not surprised because, you know, when you play Roger, you expect him at this level," Tsonga said. "You know he's able to play like this, so you always expect it."
Since winning his last Australian title in 2010, Federer has lost in the semifinals each year at Melbourne Park -- including last year's defeat to Murray, who has an 11-9 edge in head-to-heads.
"It's good to see he took care of his draw, and here we are again," Federer said. "I'm looking forward to the match, I must say. We had an interesting year last year with some ups and downs. It's a good start to the season for both of us already."
Murray had minor back surgery in September and is keeping his expectations in check in only his second tournament since.
"I said at the start of the tournament, I can't honestly say my expectations are as high as if I'd been playing for the last four months," Murray said. "But I'm not far away from winning the event. Anyone's that's in the quarters is close."
Azarenka became a big favorite to win a third consecutive Australian title when Sharapova, returning from a long layoff with a right shoulder injury, lost 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 to Cibulkova in the first match of the day. Cibulkova completed a set of major quarterfinals with her best run in Australia and will next meet No. 11 Simona Halep.
Azarenka played the second match on Rod Laver Arena and extended her winning streak at Melbourne Park to 18 with a 6-3, 6-2 victory over No. 13-seeded Sloane Stephens, whom she also beat in a contentious semifinal last year. She will next play No. 5 Agneiszka Radwanska, who finished off day eight with a 6-1, 6-3 win over Garbine Muguruza.