Rafael Nadal struggled past 148th-ranked qualifier Paolo Lorenzi 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-0 in his opening match at the Italian Open on Wednesday, looking far from the form that has helped him dominate on clay for six years.
It marked the third consecutive match in which Nadal dropped the first set, having also rallied to beat Roger Federer in a Madrid Open semifinal and then losing in straight sets to Novak Djokovic in Sunday's final. Nadal has never lost consecutive matches on his favorite surface.
The world's No. 1 player couldn't recall the last time he played so poorly on clay.
"But it's impossible to play worse, so that's one good thing," he said.
Djokovic stretched his unbeaten start this year to 33 matches with a 6-0, 6-3 win over Polish qualifier Lukasz Kubot earlier. The Serb could take the top ranking if he wins the tournament and Nadal fails to reach the semifinals.
The event at the Foro Italico is a key warmup for the French Open, which starts in 11 days.
Federer, who has never won this title, got off to a solid start with a 6-4, 6-2 victory over former Australian Open runner-up Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
"It was easier than I expected. I always expect a tough match from Jo," Federer said. "But I was able to play a clean match from start to finish and I'm really pleased."
Sixth-seeded David Ferrer withdrew before his match against Marin Cilic due to a fever.
Also advancing were ninth-seeded Nicolas Almagro and 11th-seeded Mardy Fish, while No. 8 Jurgen Melzer and No. 15 Viktor Troicki were eliminated.
In women's action, top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki breezed by Australian qualifier Anastasia Rodionova 6-2, 6-0.
Also, two-time champion Jelena Jankovic dispatched Lucie Safarova of the Czech Republic 6-0, 6-3; third-seeded Victoria Azarenka rolled past Sara Errani of Italy 6-1, 6-2; and fourth-seeded Li Na of China dispatched Lourdes Dominguez Lino of Spain 6-4, 6-2.
French Open finalist Sam Stosur also moved on, but three seeds lost: No. 8 Agnieszka Radwanska, No. 12 Andrea Petkovic and No. 13 Ana Ivanovic.
Nadal struggled with his forehand against Lorenzi, consistently sending routine shots from the center of the court into the net during the opening two sets.
In all, Nadal committed 35 unforced errors to Lorenzi's 34.
"In general it was bad. I felt slow, I felt my forehand was short all the time," Nadal said. "He played smart, too — good serves, good volleys. I played bad."
Nadal said he had problems adjusting to the difference in conditions from Madrid, where the balls fly faster because it's at a higher altitude.
"And losing the final makes everything more difficult — you're more tired and a little more sad," he said. "But I'm in the third round and that's very positive for me.
"I have to be confident with myself and tomorrow I have to play more aggressively with my forehand. ... Tennis is like this. One moment you feel fantastic and unbeatable. But things change."
Lorenzi used a serve-and-volley strategy at the start, then varied his game more as Nadal began making uncharacteristic errors to conclude long baseline rallies.
"I tried to vary my game and not allow him to get into any rhythm," Lorenzi said following the 2-hour, 36-minute match. "I played with him for 2 hours and 10 minutes, then he took over."
Lorenzi beat Madrid semifinalist Thomaz Bellucci in the first round and has never won back-to-back matches at a Masters Series event. The crowd was clearly behind the Siena resident, chanting "Paolo, Paolo" after every big point he won.
After trading breaks midway through the first set, Lorenzi won three consecutive points to take the tiebreaker, which ended when Nadal missed an overhead smash way wide.
In the second set, Nadal wasted an early break before Lorenzi netted a backhand to hand Nadal a 5-4 lead, after which the Spaniard served out the set and never looked back.
Nadal's match came in sharp contrast to the dominating performance of Djokovic, whose unbeaten season-opening streak trails only John McEnroe's 42-0 in 1984 in the Open era.
"It's always great to have a straight-set win and spend less time on the courts and save some energy for coming rounds," Djokovic said.
Overall, Djokovic has won 35 consecutive matches since Serbia's Davis Cup triumph in December, tying him for sixth in the Open era with Bjorn Borg (1978), Thomas Muster (1995) and Federer (2005).
Guillermo Vilas holds the Open era record for longest winning streak at 46 matches, established in 1977.
Djokovic's next opponent will be 14th-seeded Stanislas Wawrinka, who overcame a challenge from Italian wild card Filippo Volandri 6-1, 3-6, 6-2.
Djokovic beat Wawrinka in the 2008 final here, the only time in the last six years when Nadal failed to win this tournament.
"He likes this court and these conditions," Djokovic said. "It's going to be a tough match."