Serena Williams went down smashing racquets and screaming as she bowed out of the Australian Open quarterfinals on Wednesday, hampered by a back injury and beaten in three sets by fellow American Sloane Stephens.
The injury robbed Williams of her serve -- the most effective weapon in women's tennis -- but teenager Stephens will take much credit for holding her nerve to finish off the ailing 15-time Grand Slam champion.
Roger Federer’s bid to emulate Williams as a five-time Melbourne Park champion survived a five-set test at the hands of an inspired Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and the Swiss marched on to a last-four meeting with Andy Murray, who crushed Jeremy Chardy.
Stephens will have 24 hours to prepare for her first Grand Slam semifinal against defending champion and World No 1 Victoria Azarenka, who came through a minor scare to beat Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova.
“Oh my goodness,” said Stephens, teary-eyed and almost lost for words after beating a player whose picture once adorned her bedroom wall. “This is so crazy, but oh my goodness, I think I’ll put a poster of myself up now.”
The 31-year-old Williams, odds-on favourite to claim a third successive Grand Slam crown, pulled up to avoid hitting the net after a backhand drop shot early in the second set and shrieked as she felt the full force of a back spasm.
After lengthy treatment, Williams continued but the power of her serve and groundstrokes were considerably diminished and 19-year-old Stephens took advantage in impressive fashion to run out a 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 winner in Rod Laver Arena.
Williams, who smashed her racquet to pieces in frustration in the third set, tried graciously to honour the locker-room code that you do not diminish an opponent’s achievement but was unable to wholly play down the significance of the injury.
Federer, also 31, started his match against Tsonga by breaking the Frenchman but it was just one of nine breaks in an absorbing three-and-a-half-hour contest that see-sawed back and forth all evening.
Tsonga, a finalist here in 2008, was tactically smart, sent down 20 booming aces and produced some brilliant forehands that overpowered even Federer’s defences at times.
The 17-time Grand Slam champion rode his luck on occasions, too, but had something in reserve for the deciding set and finally overcame the seventh seed’s resistance with a smash on his fifth match point to clinch a 7-6, 4-6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-3 win.
“It was a tough close for sure, but the whole match was tough. Every set could have gone either way,” said Federer, whose victory ensured the top four seeds made the semifinals for the 15th time at a Grand Slam in the professional era.
Murray, the US Open champion, ruthlessly exploited Frenchman Chardy’s weaker backhand with a number of successful raids to the net in his 6-4, 6-1, 6-2 victory.
Azarenka had barely been tested on her way to the last eight and the 77-minute first set against former US Open and French Open champion Kuznetsova was longer than her entire fourth-round match.
Azarenka rode the storm, however, sealing a 7-5, 6-1 win.
It was curtains for Rohan Bopanna after the Indian and his Chinese Taipei partner Su-Wei Hsieh made an exit from the mixed doubles event following a straight-set quarterfinal loss. Bopanna and Hsieh went down 2-6, 3-6 the Czech-Polish combination of Kveta Peschke and Marcin Matkowski.
Results (quarterfinals): Men’s singles: 2-Roger Federer (Sui) bt 7-Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (Fra) 7-6 (7-4), 4-6, 7-6 (7-4), 3-6, 6-3; 3-Andy Murray (Gbr) bt Jeremy Chardy (Fra) 6-4, 6-1, 6-2. Women’s singles: 29-Sloane Stephens (US) bt 3-Serena Williams (US) 3-6, 7-5, 6-4; 1-Victoria Azarenka (Blr) bt Svetlana Kuznetsova (Rus) 7-5, 6-1.