|Disappointment for the US Open champion who exits in the fourth round [GALLO/GETTY]
US Open champion Juan Martin del Potro's bid for back-to-back Grand Slam titles has come to a sticky end in the fourth round of the Australian Open in Melbourne.
Del Potro struggled most of the way through the 4-hour, 38-minute five set match against No14 ranked Marin Cilic, losing 5-7, 6-4, 7-5, 5-7, 6-3.
The 21-year-old Croat lost to del Potro in the fourth round here last year and in the US Open quarter-finals.
The four other leading men continue apace.
Defending champion Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray held off two of the tallest men and biggest servers in tennis earlier on Rod Laver Arena to set up a quarter-final meeting.
Nadal, who beat Federer in the 2009 final, had a 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 win over 6-foot-10 Ivo Karlovic of Croatia, the tallest man on the tour.
No5 Murray overcame 6-foot-9 American John Isner 7-6 (4),6-3, 6-2 to reach the final eight in Australia for the first time. The 22-year-old Scot hasn't dropped a set in four matches.
No2-ranked Russian Dinara Safina was forced to retire hurt while she was down 4-5, serving at 30-40 in the first set against Maria Kirilenko, who'd ousted 2008 champion and fellow Russian Maria Sharapova in the first round.
No3-ranked Svetlana Kuznetsova lost 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 to Nadia Petrova, who went into the match on a stunning, 6-0, 6-1 third-round victory over US Open champion Kim Clijsters.
While the seeded players dropped, former No1 Justine Henin continued her
run in her first Grand Slam tournament for two years with a 7-6 (3), 1-6, 6-3 win over fellow Belgian Yanina Wickmayer, setting her on course for a quarter-final against Petrova.
Del Potro had an upset win over top-ranked Roger Federer in the US Open final last September, ending the Swiss star's streak of five straight titles in New York.
The 21-year-old Argentine was the first man since Novak Djokovic won the 2008 Australian Open to interrupt the Federer-Rafael Nadal domination of men's Grand Slam titles, and started the season's first major with the No4 seeding and among the favourites.
Del Potro had been bothered by right wrist pain that forced him out of a warm-up tournament and was undoubtedly weary from a five-set, second round win over James Blake - the longest of the tournament in terms of total games at 62.
He said the wrist and the foot were only part of the problem. What hurt? "The whole body.''
The increased expectations on him weren't a bother, he said.
"No, I really enjoyed that pressure. The crowd is unbelievable with me.
"They support me every match, every point,'' said del Potro, who plans to go home and recover.
"I was down in every match, and they help me to keep fighting, like today. I really like it, that pressure.''
When del Potro hit his last backhand long, Cilic sank to both knees, arms in the air. He volleyed the ball high into the stands, where his most vocal supporters were madly cheering.
"Today was my best so far,'' Cilic said.
"Physically I think (del Potro) was tired and he struggled, but I was feeling really good ... and I had some crazy fans.''
Cilic, who converted four of his 16 break-point chances, will next play the winner of a big-serving duel between former No1 Andy Roddick or 2007 Australian Open finalist Fernando Gonzalez of Chile.
|Safina seeks medical help before retiring from the championship [GALLO/GETTY]
Second seed Dinara Safina was forced to retire from her fourth-round match after she suffered a recurrence of a persistent back injury.
Safina was trailing 30-40 while serving at 4-5 in the first set when she went to hit a forehand, shook her head and told the umpire she could not continue.
A visibly upset world number two said at a post-match news conference, where she could barely move and was unable to sit comfortably, that the injury was the same as the one that forced her out of the season-ending WTA Championships in Doha last year.
"Exactly the same like in Doha. Exactly the same," she said.
"I just cannot move anywhere.
"I mean, the physio asked me to lie on the table. I said, 'I cannot lie. I cannot make any movement'. Whatever I try to move, it hurts terribly."
"Suddenly I played a long game at 3-2. I won the game (but) I turned to my coach (Zeljko Krajan) and said: 'I cannot move any more.' My coach told me at 4-3 to retire. I'm like: 'Okay, I'm going to try'. But it's no way."
Safina admitted she might have done more damage to her back by continuing to play the match.
"You know, you always hope that it cannot get worse. If it would be the same, you think: 'Okay, like pain killer, whatever, it can help". You always hope. Now I see I did worse."
Safina, who said she could not even pack her own bags, will return to Germany to see her doctor when she can travel comfortably and said she did not know when she might be able to return to the WTA Tour.
Kirilenko will now meet China's Zheng Jie in the quarter-finals.
|Murray powers his way to a Nadal showdown on Tuesday [GALLO/GETTY]
Nadal only dropped serve once against Karlovic, to surrender the second set. In the third and fourth sets, he broke the Croat in the third games.
He showed plenty of emotion after earning a breakpoint in the third set, screaming out "Vamos!'' and spinning around as he ripped his left elbow back and raised his left knee.
"If he serves well, you can't do anything," Nadal said.
"You just have to keep fighting and moving your legs."
Andy Murray lost to Federer in the 2008 US Open in his only Grand Slam final to date. He knows he'll probably have to beat Nadal and Federer to claim his first major here.
The Scotsman is one of the best returners in the game and he showed why, frustrating Isner with his ability to get the ball back in play.
Isner does not rely just on his serve and volley and was happy to go behind the baseline and rally with Murray, another strength of the world number four.
The first set went to a tiebreak but Murray ran away with the second two, winning 7-6 6-3 6-2. He is yet to drop a set at Melbourne Park this year and is quietly confident of beating Nadal on Tuesday.
"I'm happy to have won the matches comfortably," he said.
"I know the match against Rafa is going to be difficult, but I think I can win. I just need to make sure I play my best."
Henin, who is unranked and playing on a wild-card entry in her second tournament since returning from a 20-month retirement, told the crowd she'd missed tennis too much to resist a comeback.
"It's been great moment for myself,'' Henin said.
"It's a great feeling to be back, been a great fight and thank you.''
The seven-time Grand Slam winner dominated the first-set tiebreaker after saving three set points in the 12th game. After dropping the second set, Henin broke Wickmayer's serve to open the deciding third set and was on top after that.
In an afternoon match at Hisense, 2008 Wimbledon semi-finalist Zheng Jie set another national mark by becoming the first Chinese player to reach the quarter-finals at Melbourne Park with a 7-6 (6), 6-4 victory over Alona Bondarenko. She next plays Kirilenko.