MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka walked onto Rod Laver Arena knowing that the No. 2- and No. 3-ranked players were already out of the tournament and that the draw appeared to be opening up in her favor.
She blinked at first, when Japanese qualifier Naomi Osaka broke her at love in the first game of their third-round match, but recovered quickly and responded with a 6-1, 6-1 win in 56 minutes.
The 14th-seeded Azarenka, back in form after two injury-interrupted seasons, has dropped just five games in three matches at Melbourne Park after warming up with a title at the Brisbane International.
Azarenka had 24 winners to only four for Osaka, who was making her Grand Slam main draw debut.
“She’s a little unpredictable and she surprised me with her game,” said Azarenka, who signed off with a now-customary “dab” and discussion on dancing and music.
She will next play No. 48-ranked Barbora Strycova, who upset third-seeded Garbine Muguruza 6-3, 6-2 in the previous match on center court.
There’s three Australian Open champions remaining in the women’s draw – six-time winner Serena Williams and 2008 winner Maria Sharapova are on the other half and could meet in the quarterfinals.
Muguruza’s rapid rise to the No. 3 ranking sharpened the focus on her run in Australia, attention which only increased after No. 2-ranked Simona Halep and No. 8 Venus Williams, a seven-time major winner, lost in the first round.
It didn’t help Muguruza, though, with her loss to Strycova extending a disappointing follow-up in majors since a breakthrough run to last year’s Wimbledon final. She lost in the second round at the U.S. Open and her third-round exit here was worse than her two previous trips to Melbourne Park, where she reached the fourth round.
“Clearly not my best, for sure. I think today is a very bad day, you know, at the office,” she said. “I just couldn’t find the court, my shots. Yeah. Didn’t really find my game.”
Muguruza misfired frequently on her groundstrokes, finishing with 32 unforced errors, and appeared to be lethargic at stages of the match. Her loss left No. 7 Angelique Kerber as the highest-ranked player in the bottom half of the women’s draw.
Strycova has only been past the third round once before in 38 Grand Slams, and that was when she reached the quarterfinals of Wimbledon in 2014. Knowing her next rival was likely to be the growing favorite, Azarenka, Strycova decided to stay in the moment.
“I will enjoy myself first because I beat No. 3 in the world,” she said.
Johanna Konta, who beat Venus Williams, became the first British woman to reach the fourth round at the Australian Open since Joe Durie in 1987, giving the Brits and Aussies something to celebrate.
Konta, who was born in Sydney and became a British citizen in 2012, beat Denisa Allertova 6-2, 6-2 and will next play No. 21-seeded Ekaterina Makarova, a semifinalist here last year, who had a 6-3, 6-2 win over No. 9 Karolina Pliskova.