WHEN the draw for the Australian Open was made, it wasn't Roger Federer who was being widely touted as the prime contender to claim an 18th major title.
All that hype surrounded Serena Williams, but she was knocked out in the fourth round. Federer is still three match wins away from that milestone, but after his 6-3 7-5 6-4 demolition of No 10-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga last night, it is clear he is up for the challenge.
On a day when No 3 Maria Sharapova was upset by No 20 Dominika Cibulkova, the leading male contenders on the heavily stacked top half advanced to the quarter-finals.
Progressing along with Federer were top-ranked Rafael Nadal, who had a 7-6 (3) 7-5 7-6 (3) win over Kei Nishikori and Andy Murray, who overcame Stephane Robert 6-1 6-2 6-7 (6) 6-2.
Federer is back in the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam for the first time since last year's French Open. He next plays Murray, a three-time Australian Open finalist. A win could set up a semi-final against Nadal, who next plays first-time major quarter-finalist Grigor Dimitrov.
A win there for Federer would likely set up a final against three-time defending champion Novak Djokovic – the only other man who has won four Australian titles in the Open era.
"It's a tough thing to do. I don't know if it's been done before," sixth-seeded Federer said of his tough road to the title.
"Then again, if you don't embrace that challenge, you might as well not enter the draw."
Against Tsonga, Federer barely dropped a point on serve in the first set and put his opponent under pressure right away with an early break. The 32-year-old Swiss star was relentless and frustrated Tsonga. From the Frenchman's side, it looked like he was facing the Federer of old.
Since winning his last Australian title in 2010, Federer has lost in the semi-finals each year – including last year's defeat to Murray, who has an 11-9 edge in head-to-heads. "It's good to see he took care of his draw, and here we are again," Federer said.
Murray had minor back surgery in September and is keeping his expectations in check in only his second tournament since.
"I said at the start of the tournament, I can't honestly say my expectations are as high as if I'd been playing for the last four months," Murray said. "But I'm not far away from winning the event. Anyone's that's in the quarters is close."
Victoria Azarenka became a big favourite to win a third consecutive Australian title when Sharapova lost 3-6 6-4 6-1 to Cibulkova, who will next meet No 11 Simona Halep.
Azarenka extended her winning streak at Melbourne Park to 18 with a 6-3 6-2 victory over Sloane Stephens, whom she also beat in a contentious semi-final last year. She will next play No 5 Agnieszka Radwanska, who finished off the day with a 6-1 6-3 win over Garbine Muguruza.
Li Na stayed on course for another Australian Open final appearance with a comprehensive win over Flavia Pennetta in the last eight.
The Chinesewoman has twice been a beaten finalist in Melbourne, most recently losing to Victoria Azarenka 12 months ago. Fourth seed Li saved a match point against Lucie Safarova in the third round but has been untroubled since and powered past Pennetta 6-2 6-2.