By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Victoria Azarenka returned to her merciless best with a crushing win over Russian Elena Vesnina to make the Australian Open quarter-finals on Monday, as the Gallic juggernaut rolled on with two Frenchmen assured of making the last eight at Melbourne Park.
The world number one Azarenka was the first player in the women's top four seeds to drop a set in her tough third-round match against American Jamie Hampton, and set herself the goal of improving "everything" against the 47th-ranked Vesnina.
The tall Belarusian need not have worried as her opponent offered little resistance in a 6-1 6-1 rout, allowing Azarenka a timely confidence boost ahead of her next match against twice grand slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova.
The march of the French has seen tri-colour flags waving at Melbourne Park, where four of the country's men made the last 16 for the first time since 1998.
Jeremy Chardy ensured more cheer for France, as he continued his brilliant run at Melbourne Park with a 5-7 6-3 6-2 6-2 win over 21st seed Andreas Seppi of Italy at Hisense Arena.
"Normally I always play bad in Australia," a thrilled Chardy, who stunned sixth seed Juan Martin del Potro in the previous round, said courtside.
"It's the first time I've played good in Melbourne, so I am happy."
With an all-French battle between Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet playing at Rod Laver Arena, France will reach their record of two players in the men's quarter-finals at Melbourne Park, last achieved in 2009.
Gilles Simon has a chance to become a third Frenchman in the quarters with a win over Briton Andy Murray later on Monday, with the victor to take on Chardy.
But the 14th seed Simon has given himself little chance of a monumental upset over Murray after struggling to recover from a five-set marathon against Gael Monfils on Saturday.
Kuznetosova, the 2004 U.S. Open champion and winner at Roland Garros in 2009, turned back the clock with an absorbing 6-2 2-6 7-5 victory over 10th seed Caroline Wozniacki.
Former WTA cover-girl Wozniacki struggled as world number one without a grand slam and has continued to struggle without the top ranking. The loss will send the Dane spinning out of the top 10 when the new rankings come out.
The 75th-ranked Kuznetsova is on the rise, however, and was relishing the prospect of her third quarter-final at Melbourne Park after spending much of last year on crutches with a knee injury.
The 27-year-old Russian has a tattoo on her right bicep, reading "Pain doesn't kill me, I kill the pain," in English.
"I have many tattoos. I don't remember when I got this one," she told reporters. "But a tattoo is something (of the) history of your life, and I believe in it."
Serena Williams continues her campaign with a quarter-final against 14th seed Maria Kirilenko in the evening session at Rod Laver Arena, with Roger Federer playing the later match against Canada's Milos Raonic.
(Editing by Patrick Johnston)
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