Rafael Nadal's hopes of a confidence boosting title victory in Barcelona have been ended at just the third-round stage. The home crowd favourite was a surprise casualty, as Italian clay court exponent Fabio Fognini came through their tough tussle in straight sets. Despite overcoming fellow Spaniard Nicolas Almagro so impressively in the previous round, Nadal failed to repeat his form against the Italian as he fell to a 4-6 6-7 loss.
It is the latest in a string of disappointing results for the former world number one, fresh from a comprehensive defeat on clay to Novak Djokovic in Monte Carlo.
Although Nadal said that he felt that he was moving in the right direction against Djokovic, he acknowledged that his performance in the Fognini match was not as he had hoped. It represented another setback as he looks to defend his French Open crown next month.
After a loss in the first round in the Spanish capital, Nadal's 6-3 6-1 success over his conqueror at the quarter-final stage of the event last year looked very promising for his ambitions this time around. By contrast to Nadal's demolition of Almagro, Fognini had struggled past a Russian qualifier, Andrey Rublev in his second round match. The eight-time champion on the clay of Barcelona could have been expected, therefore, to have the game to dispose of Fognini with something to spare. However, Nadal by his own admission "played poorly" to register his shortest run at the event in twelve years.
To put the performance in context, that was way back in 2003 when the 14-time Grand Slam winner-to-be was only 16-years-old.
Fognini may have a better self-belief in his abilities against the so-called "King of Clay" in recent times, after also finding a way past the Spaniard earlier in 2015 in a semi-final in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Nadal will need to gather himself quickly from this latest reversal and still represents a formidable adversary on clay. His opponents may be considering him as less of the immovable force that he once was on the surface, making it more difficult for him to exert his dominance. For the good of the sport, there will be many that hope that he can regain his inner strength in time for the French Open. #TennisThe reigning champion at the Barcelona Open, Kei Nishikori remains on course to repeat his victory in 2015. Japan's top player is seeded number one for the event and despite a strong challenge in the quarter-finals from Roberto Bautista-