First it was Rafael Nadal. Then came Roger Federer’s turn.
The two players that have dominated tennis for the last three years were both upset over three days at the Rome Masters.
Federer lost his sixth match of the year on Friday, falling to 27th-ranked Radek Stepanek 7-6 (4), 7-6 (7) in the quarter-finals.
The top-ranked Federer lost only nine matches last year. He piled up a string of defeats at the beginning of this year when he was diagnosed with glandular fever.
Nadal, the three-time defending champion in Rome, lost in the second round to Juan Carlos Ferrero.
In the semi-finals, Stepanek will face Australian Open winner Novak Djokovic. He advanced when Nicolas Almagro retired with an apparent wrist problem while the Serb led 6-1, 1-0.
In the other half of the draw, sixth-seeded Andy Roddick eliminated No. 14 Tommy Robredo 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (4) to match his best performance in Rome.
Roddick’s semi-final opponent will be Stanislas Wawrinka, who rallied past eighth-seeded James Blake 6-7 (5), 7-6 (5), 6-1.
Roddick improved to 8-0 in his career against Robredo, rushing the net on both his first and second serves against the Spaniard.
In the third-set tiebreaker, Roddick overwhelmed Robredo with two aces and converted his first match point after following his second serve to net.
Federer surrendered a 5-2 lead in the second-set tiebreaker, and wasted a set point at 6-5 on Stepanek’s serve by hitting into the net.
“Usually when I have a lead I don’t let it go, so it’s quite disappointing,” Federer said. “I played so poorly on the big points.”
Federer won his first title of the year at the Estoril Open last month, the longest he’s waited in nine years.
“He definitely doesn’t have the results he was used to in previous years,” Stepanek said. “But the other players are getting better. I came to the match with the belief that I can win.”
The Rome Masters is an important clay-court tuneup for the French Open, which begins on May 25. Roland Garros is the only Grand Slam Federer has never won. He has also never won a title in Rome.
Federer had won four of his previous five meetings with Stepanek, but the pair are now tied 2-2 on clay.
“He’s difficult to play,” Federer said. “He’s always changing his game up a lot. But I’ve played him in the past, so it wasn’t a surprise. I just wish I played better.”
Stepanek converted his second match point with a first serve that Federer couldn’t return.
In the first set tiebreaker, Stepanek took control with a volley to go up 6-4, then served an ace on his first set point.
After his illness, Federer snapped back by winning Estoril and reaching the final of the Monte Carlo Masters in his last outing, losing to Nadal.
Federer pronounced himself fully fit at the beginning of this tournament, and his problem on Friday didn’t appear to be a physical one.
At one point in the first set, Federer won four straight service games without losing a point. Still, Stepanek kept up the pressure by serve-and-volleying and winning 25 of 41 points at the net.
“It was very important, because if you let him play his game, he can move the ball all around the court,” Stepanek said of his aggressive tactics. “I wanted to keep the pressure on.”
Stepanek served eight aces to Federer’s seven.
The Czech player celebrated his victory by performing a caterpillar-like movement with his belly face-down on the clay.