- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 27, 2009

MELBOURNE, Australia | Touted by British bookmakers as a favorite at tennis’ first Grand Slam of the year, Andy Murray didn’t pay off.

He lost to No. 14 Fernando Verdasco of Spain in five sets Monday in the fourth round of the Australian Open.

The No. 4 seed twice blew a one-set lead and missed chances to break serve in the pivotal sixth game of the deciding set. He then dropped serve in the subsequent game and was beaten 2-6, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3, 6-4.

It was a big letdown for Murray, who defeated No. 1 Rafael Nadal and No. 2 Roger Federer in an exhibition in Abu Dhabi earlier this month.

“I don’t know if I’ll be the favorite for a Slam in the next year or so after today,” he said.

Murray went out in the first round last year, the initial victim of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s surprising charge to the Australian Open final. The 21-year-old Scot’s biggest aim is to end Britain’s run of 73 years without a winner of a men’s major.

“I’ll try and learn from it… come back a better player,” said Murray, who finished last season with five titles and made a run to the U.S. Open final. “I’m thinking that last year I had a tough loss. This year obviously is a tough loss, as well. I came back stronger last year.”

Nadal had a far easier time, downing 2007 runner-up Fernando Gonzalez of Chile 6-3, 6-2, 6-4. He has yet to drop a set ahead of his quarterfinal against sixth-seeded Gilles Simon.

“I am playing well, but you never know if it’s going to be enough,” said Nadal, who had 33 winners and just 11 unforced errors.

Verdasco will meet fifth-seeded Tsonga, a Frenchman who defeated No. 9 James Blake 6-4, 6-4, 7-6 (3) in a night match.

In the women’s quarterfinals Tuesday (Monday night EST), seventh-seeded Vera Zvonareva of Russia beat 2007 Wimbledon finalist Marion Bartoli 6-3, 6-0.

Of the top eight seeded players on the men’s side, Murray will be the only one missing from the quarterfinals at Melbourne Park. Never in the Open era have all eight top seeds filled every spot in a Grand Slam quarterfinal lineup.

He wasn’t the only casualty Monday - Melbourne Park nearly had to establish its own emergency room. Three matches finished early because of illness or injuries. The opener at Rod Laver Arena finished with Simon holding a 2-1 set advantage when fellow Frenchman Gael Monfils decided he couldn’t continue with an injured right wrist.

In the following match on center court, Serena Williams lost the first set 6-3 to 13th-seeded Victoria Azarenka of Belarus. Williams, annoyed with her erratic first serve, screamed at herself and drew a warning for an obscenity.

Azarenka woke up sick and was dizzy and in tears when she quit after going down a break at 2-4 in the second.

“The doctors didn’t want me to keep going, but I wanted to keep trying and see how I do,” she said. “But it was probably not a very good idea because it just gave me even more trouble after.”

Williams, who has won in Australia every alternate year since 2003, next plays Svetlana Kuznetsova, the 2004 U.S. Open champion. Kuznetsova advanced when Zheng Jie retired at 4-1 after injuring her left wrist in a tumble in the third game, ending her hopes of a victory on Chinese New Year.

Williams, who has won nine majors, and Kuznetsova are the only Grand Slam title winners remaining in the women’s draw.

Olympic champion Elena Dementieva extended her winning streak to 14 matches with a 6-2, 6-2 win against Slovakia’s Dominika Cibulkova to reach the quarterfinals in Melbourne for the first time in 11 trips. The fourth-seeded Russian next faces Carla Suarez Navarro, who ousted seven-time Grand Slam winner Venus Williams in the second round. Suarez Navarro beat No. 21 Anabel Medina Garrigues 6-3, 6-2 in an all-Spanish match.

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