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Nadal's surprising clay-court struggles continue with loss to Almagro at Barcelona Open

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BARCELONA, Spain - Top-ranked Rafael Nadal's clay-court struggles worsened Friday as his 41-match winning streak at the Barcelona Open ended with a three-set loss to Nicolas Almagro in the quarterfinals.

Nadal was looking for his ninth title in Barcelona but lost 2-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4, a week after going out in the quarterfinals of the Monte Carlo Masters to David Ferrer. Nadal, widely considered the greatest clay-court player of all time, hadn't lost in Barcelona since his debut as a 15-year-old in 2003, although he missed the tournament in 2010. He had not dropped a set here since the 2008 final.

The 20th-ranked Almagro converted his second match point, smashing a forehand down the line for his first career victory over his fellow Spaniard on the 11th try.

"I had a lot of opportunities in the second set," Nadal said. "I didn't take advantage of break points, so credit goes to him."

After failing to convert any of his five break points in the second set, Nadal missed a return in the tiebreaker to give Almagro a 6-5 lead. Almagro followed up with a crosscourt forehand winner to level the match and end Nadal's streak of 44 straight sets at the tournament.

Both players were steady on serve until an exchange of breaks made it 4-4 in the third, and Nadal then sent a shot long to be broken again and give Almagro a chance to serve for the match.

Nadal set up two straight chances to break back, but hit a forehand long and then sent a smash into the net with Almagro out of position.

Nadal then saved the first match point when Almagro's backhand flew wide. But Almagro used a serve-and-volley to save a third break point of the game before Nadal's long return set up the second match point.

Nadal hadn't been eliminated this early in back-to-back clay-court tournaments since 2004, when as an 18-year-old he also failed to get past the quarterfinals in Stuttgart and Bastad.

"This is an important win for my career," said Almagro, who celebrated wildly. Almagro will face Santiago Giraldo in Saturday's semifinals after Philipp Kohlschreiber retired with an injury while trailing 6-4, 4-3.

Earlier, Kei Nishikori of Japan and Ernests Gulbis of Latvia overpowered opponents to set up a semifinal meeting.

The fourth-seeded Nishikori continued his good run since returning from a groin injury with a 6-1, 6-3 victory over Marin Cilic of Croatia, while the ninth-seeded Gulbis dismissed Teymuraz Gabashvili of Russia 6-1, 6-4. Gulbis saved all five break points against Gabashvili, who had knocked out the fifth-ranked Ferrer.

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