|Djokovic was pushed hard by Ferrer in the opening sets but stepped up a gear in the third set to take control [GETTY]
Andy Murray moved smoothly into the Australian Open's last four with an entertaining win over Japan's Kei Nishikori Wednesday, as Petra Kvitova and Maria Sharapova also reached the semis.
Despite sometimes being caught flat-footed by the flamboyant Nishikori, Murray ended the 22-year-old's historic run 6-3, 6-3, 6-1 in just 2hr 12min to set up a semi-final clash on Friday against top seed Novak Djokovic.
Defending champion Djokovic was given a thorough workout by Spain's David Ferrer on Wednesday but battled through.
The tenacious Ferrer pushed Djokovic hard, manoeuvring him around the court, but the top seed stepped up his game when it mattered to win 6-4, 7-6 (7/4), 6-1.
Murray is now into his fifth consecutive grand slam semi-final as he seeks the first major win by a British man in 76 years, and is still on course for his third straight Melbourne title match.
After heavy defeats by Roger Federer and Djokovic in the past two finals, Murray has progressed almost unnoticed, but Ivan Lendl's new charge is unbeaten this year and has dropped just one set in reaching the last four.
Importantly Murray, whose previous opponent retired hurt, has been barely detained on court so far, leaving him physically fresh for his semi-final against either Djokovic or Spain's David Ferrer, who play later.
"I'm going to have to play a lot of long points and a lot of tough points against either Ferrer or Novak, so it's good that I'm fresh," Murray said.
Four-time winner Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the 2009 champion, will be in action in the other semi-final on Thursday.
In the women's draw, burgeoning star Petra Kvitova and glamorous Russian Maria Sharapova set up a hotly anticipated rematch of last year's Wimbledon decider with quarter-final wins Wednesday.
Kvitova, who enjoyed a breakthrough victory over Sharapova at Wimbledon in July, beat Italy's Sara Errani 6-4, 6-4, before Sharapova ended the fairytale run of 56th-ranked Ekaterina Makarova 6-2, 6-3 to reach the semi-finals.
It is the first time Sharapova has reached the final four in Melbourne since 2008, when she claimed the most recent of her three major trophies.
The photogenic blonde has since suffered injury problems and she said her return to contention for grand slam titles vindicated her hard work in recovery and training.
|Sharapova said her return from injury had been long and tough but felt happy to be back [AFP]
"It's been a long road back to this big stage, but after hitting the winning shot you look back and think everything was worth it, no matter how tough it was," she said.
Later on the centre court, Nishikori wowed the crowd with a between-the-legs trick shot but could not produce the tennis to seriously trouble the British number one and fourth seed Murray.
"I thought it was a good match. There were a lot of good points. Most of the fun points he was winning so I was trying to keep them as short as possible," said Murray, who was on target with only 44 percent of first serves.
"I need to serve better. I didn't serve particularly well but the returning was good so that was a positive," he added.
Murray broke the Japanese 24th seed seven times in total while he was broken twice. Murray, still seeking his first grand slam win, is unbeaten this year after he won the Brisbane title earlier this month.
Nishikori, the highest male Japanese player in rankings history, was the first Japanese man to reach the quarterfinals of the Australian Open in the open era.