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Sharapova joins Serena on Aussie sidelines

– Maria Sharapova followed Serena Williams out of the Australian Open in the fourth round, losing 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 to Dominika Cibulkova today in the second major upset in 24 hours on Rod Laver Arena.

Third-seeded Sharapova struggled with her serve, getting broken four straight games after failing to serve out the first set. After taking an off-court medical timeout after the second set for what appeared to be a lower back problem, she had seven double-faults in the third set.

The four-time major winner was two tournaments into a comeback from a prolonged layoff with a right shoulder injury.

“I have to look at the positives and see where I have come from in four or five months. I haven’t played a lot of tennis in those six months,” said Sharapova, who won the Australian title in 2008.

“So I certainly would have loved to play a little bit more before playing a Grand Slam, but this is the chance that I was given.”

Top-ranked Williams was knocked out in a three-set loss to 14th-seeded Ana Ivanovic on Sunday, and later revealed she had a back problem that had her considering withdrawing from the tournament.

The absence of two of the biggest stars in women’s tennis opens up the draw for two-time defending champion Victoria Azarenka, who defeated No. 13-seeded Sloane Stephens 6-3, 6-2 today.

Sharapova made it hard for herself in Australia. She needed almost 3 1/2 hours to beat Karin Knapp in searing heat the second round.

Cibulkova had spent just over 3 1/2 hours on court in her first three wins, including a 6-1, 6-0 win over No. 16 Carla Suarez Navarro in the third round.

The pair hadn’t played since Sharapova’s quarterfinal win at Wimbledon in 2011. Now they’re evenly split in six head-to-heads.

“I was never doubting myself,” the No. 20-seeded Cibulkova said, adding that Ivanovic’s win over Williams the previous day had been motivational but not her main inspiration against Sharapova.

“It was a great match for Ana. But this was a different story. I already beat Maria before and I beat her” at a major.

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