Madrid: Maria Sharapova beat Li Na to book her place in the last four of the Madrid Open as top seed and reigning champion Serena Williams pulled out of the tournament on Friday.
Williams was due to face Petra Kvitova in the quarter-finals but pulled out due to a thigh injury she had been carrying since sweeping aside Swiss teenager Belinda Bencic in the first round on Sunday.
“I have a left thigh injury and, unfortunately, have to withdraw from this year’s Madrid Open,” said Williams.
“It happened during my first round match. It started to get better, but most importantly right now, I just need some time to rest and recover.
“It’s beyond words. It’s so frustrating.”
However, the American insisted that she will try to defend her title at the Internazionale BNL D’Italia in Rome next week.
“I am planning to play in Rome. Fortunately, I have a bye next week so will have an extra day of rest.
“For now, I will take it one day at a time and take advantage of some extra rest.”
Sharapova has been beaten by Williams in Madrid in the last two years, including in the 2013 final, and the Russian is now the favourite to clinch her first title in the Spanish capital as she edged a thrilling match against second seed Li 2-6, 7-6 (7/5), 6-3.
Li looked on course for the semi-finals when she broke to lead 4-3 in the second set.
However, Sharapova broke back immediately and, despite needing four set points, finally forced the match into a deciding set when Li netted at 5-6 down in the tie-break.
There were three breaks of serve to open the third set, but Sharapova took control when she finally consolidated the break at 3-1 and was gifted the final game when Li double faulted on match point.
The four-time Grand Slam champion will face third seed Agnieszka Radwanska or French qualifier Caroline Garcia in the semi-finals on Saturday.
On Thursday, Wimbledon champion Andy Murray’s return to action at the Madrid Masters was ended in the third round by Santiago Giraldo as the Colombian romped to a 6-3, 6-2 win.
Murray was competing for the first time in a month in the Spanish capital and was powerless to stop the in-form Giraldo, who reached the final of the Barcelona Open two weeks ago, as he sealed victory in just over an hour to set up a quarter-final meeting with Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut.
“He played very well from start to finish, he didn’t make many mistakes, but I didn’t make it hard enough for him in the second set towards the end,” said Murray
“I didn’t put enought pressure on him to force him to make errors. He dictated most of the points and deserved to win.”
World number one Rafael Nadal remains on course to retain his title as he moved into the last eight with a 6-1, 6-4 win over Finland’s Jarkko Nieminen.
Nadal had come into the tournament looking to dispel doubts after suffering shock defeats to David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro in the quarter-finals of the Monte Carlo Masters and the Barcelona Open respectively.
However, he looked in fine form as he took nine of the opening 10 games to move 6-1, 3-0 in front.
Nieminen then briefly threatened a comeback as he broke back and even had break points at 4-4 in the second set, but Nadal held on before sealing victory when the world number 57 fired long in the next game.
“I am happy because I think until 3-0 in the second set I played the best I have on clay since I started in Monte Carlo,” said Nadal.
“It’s just a question of finding my rhythm, my level of play and I am doing that little by little. Tomorrow will be another tough match and I need to prepare well for that.
“I did what I needed to do today and I just need to find that little bit more consistency which I lost after 3-0 in the second set.”
Next up for the 13-time Grand Slam champion was a meeting with sixth seed Tomas Berdych after the Czech came through in three sets against Bulgarian 12th seed Grigor Dimitrov 3-6, 6-3, 6-2.
Japan’s Kei Nishikori continued his fine form on clay after winning in Barcelona two weeks ago as he outlasted eighth seed Milos Raonic in two tie-breaks 7-6 (7/5), 7-6 (7/5) and will face Feliciano Lopez in the last eight after he was handed a walkover against Stanislas Wawrinka’s conqueror Dominic Thiem.
David Ferrer was too strong for big-serving American John Isner as the world number five progressed 6-4, 6-4 and will meet Ernests Gulbis who also beat Marin Cilic in straight sets.