MELBOURNE, Jan 21 — Victoria Azarenka crushed 15th seed Elina Svitolina in the Australian Open third round today as she tries to climb back to the top of women’s tennis, ahead of top attractions Ashleigh Barty and Naomi Osaka taking to court in Melbourne.

World number one Barty and defending champion Osaka can set up a mouth-watering last-16 showdown if they win their matches in the night session, while Rafael Nadal is also in action as he targets a 21st Grand Slam title.

But it was the 32-year-old Belarusian Azarenka who turned back the clock to steal the early headlines with a 6-0, 6-2 dismissal of her Ukrainian opponent and set up a clash with French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova for place in the quarter-finals.

“I think that’s really what I’m trying to say is that ladder I want to climb step-by-step,” said Azarenka, who won back-to-back Australian Opens in 2012 and 2013, of her efforts to get back among the elite.

“I think the danger for me is to try to skip a few steps. I think that is something I’m actually learning not to do. That’s been helpful.”

Krejcikova overcame a big fright against 2017 Roland Garros winner Jelena Ostapenko.

The Czech dropped the first set and was a break down in the second before coming through 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 and declaring her never-say-die attitude meant her rivals should now be afraid of her.

“I hope they are scared of me,” said the 26-year-old, who was one of the standout players of 2021, winning three titles as she soared more than 50 places up the rankings.

After a day of shocks yesterday, it was altogether calmer for players in the top 10 today as fifth seed Maria Sakkari and eighth seed Paula Badosa joined fourth seed Krejcikova in the last 16.

Greece’s Sakkari beat Veronika Kudermetova of Russia 6-4, 6-1 and Badosa came through 6-2, 5-7, 6-4 against Ukraine’s Marta Kostyuk after bouncing back from a mid-match wobble.

Monfils on a roll

On the men’s side in the third round, Italian seventh seed Matteo Berrettini came through a five-set epic against talented Spanish 18-year-old Carlos Alcaraz 6-2, 7-6 (7/3), 4-6, 2-6, 7-6 (10/5).

Flamboyant French 17th seed Gael Monfils, who won the Adelaide warm-up event, continued his great early season form with a 7-6 (7/4), 6-1, 6-3 romp against 16th-seeded Christian Garin of Chile. 

And Serbia’s 77th-ranked Miomir Kecmanovic, who had been due to play — and probably lose — to world number one Novak Djokovic in the first round on Monday, now finds himself in the second week after knocking out Italian 25th seed Lorenzo Sonego 6-4, 6-7 (8/10), 6-2, 7-5.

Later, top seed Barty, who has been in dominant form in 2022, faces the experienced Italian 30th seed Camila Giorgi on Rod Laver Arena.

Osaka, who won at Melbourne Park in 2019 and 2021, will be playing Amanda Anisimova on the adjacent Margaret Court Arena at the same time.

Nadal comes up against dangerous Russian 28th seed Karen Khachanov in the late match, with the Spaniard warning that his best is still to come as he works his way back to peak form after an injury-hit 2021.

Barty, chasing a first title at her home Slam, has barely broken sweat so far, dropping only three games in two matches.

Nadal’s path to become the first man to win 21 Grand Slams — he is tied on 20 with Roger Federer and Djokovic, who are both absent — could see him meet Olympic champion Alexander Zverev in the quarter-finals. — AFP