Rafael Nadal's clay-court woes mounted on Thursday at the Barcelona Open with another loss.
The eight-time champion fell to Fabio Fognini 6-4, 7-6 (6) in the third round, a year after his 41-match winning streak in Barcelona ended in the quarterfinals.
After dropping the first set, Nadal appeared to have rebounded by breaking the Italian three times in the second set, but Fognini answered each time.
In the tiebreaker, Nadal trailed 6-3 but came back to 6-6. Fognini went ahead, and Nadal drove a shot long for only his third loss at the tournament.
"I played poorly, I didn't play like I should have," Nadal said. "I didn't play aggressively, I missed more shots that I normally do. I didn't manage to keep the advantage I had. Having three breaks in the second set and end up at 5-5 is a disaster.
"This is a blow for me, but I accept the challenge and the negative day I had today. There is no other way forward other than to accept it or die."
After winning their first four career meetings, Nadal has lost twice to Fognini this year on his preferred surface.
Nadal, a nine-time French Open champion, was trying to rebound from last week's loss to Novak Djokovic at the Monte Carlo Masters.
Nadal has failed to reclaim his title at two tournaments he has won a record eight times, casting doubt on his ability to defend the French Open title.
Despite his loss to Djokovic at Monte Carlo, Nadal said he had been pleased with his performance. After the defeat to Fognini, Nadal was at a loss for what he considered another setback since returning from medical issues including a wrist injury and an appendectomy.
"This is a hard day for me. I felt I was playing better," Nadal said while shaking his head repeatedly. "I will keep working. I am convinced that this situation of ups and downs I have had since returning from injuries, sooner or later, will come to an end."
Nadal's main concern is the loss of power to his trademark left-hand forehand, which Fognini matched stroke for stroke to set up his effective mix of drop shots and lobs.
"My forehand didn't have enough power, enough speed, and I didn't have enough control," he said. "My forehand has been my biggest virtue. But today my forehand was vulgar, it wasn't a forehand worthy of my ranking and career. I need my forehand to push my opponents back."
Nadal's next tournament will be in two weeks in Madrid.
The 13th-seeded Fognini, who had never won a match at the Real Club de Tennis before winning his second-round opener, will next face Pablo Andujar of Spain. Andujar beat Feliciano Lopez 6-3, 6-4.
Earlier, defending champion Kei Nishikori advanced by beating Santiago Giraldo of Colombia 6-2, 6-1, and four-time finalist David Ferrer defeated Swedish 19-year-old Elias Ymer 6-3, 6-4.
Nishikori beat Giraldo last year in straight sets to win his first clay-court title in Barcelona, and the top-seeded Japanese player had little trouble repeating his victory after converting five of nine break points.
Nishikori will next play Roberto Bautista Agut after the Spaniard defeated 10th-seeded Pablo Cuevas 7-6 (5), 6-2.
Ferrer will meet Philipp Kohlschreiber after he ousted Benoit Paire of France 6-4, 7-6 (6).
Martin Klizan of Slovakia also joined the final eight after ending Victor Estrella's strong start to the tournament with a 6-4, 6-3 victory. Klizan will meet Tommy Robredo in the final eight after he dispensed with Marcel Granollers of Spain 6-2, 6-2.