Alexandr Dolgopolov beat Rafael Nadal for the first time. (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- It was a bad day for defending champions at the BNP Paribas Open.
Just a couple of hours after Maria Sharapova tumbled out of the tournament, No. 1 Rafael Nadal quickly followed suit on Monday, losing to No. 31 Alexandr Dolgopolov 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5) in the third round.
In five previous matches, Dolgopolov had never won a set against Nadal, but the Ukrainian has been on form over the last three weeks. He made the final of the Rio Open, where he lost to Nadal, and made the semifinals of the Mexican Open, where he lost to Kevin Anderson in three sets. Since the end of 2013, Dolgopolov has improved 26 spots in the rankings, the biggest jump in the top 50.
Dolgopolov took it to Nadal throughout the match, fighting off his service woes -- he served at just 40 percent -- to dazzle the crowd with his distinct array of shot making. He outhit Nadal off the ground, striking 36 winners to 49 unforced errors, while Nadal responded with just 17 winners to 23 unforced errors.
"I played bad," Nadal said. "That's all. I'm disappointed with the way I played. But that happens sometimes."
The 25-year-old Dolgopolov served for the match at 5-3 in the third set. But he lost the next two games without winning a point, getting broken thanks to three unforced errors and a double fault on break point. He held on to force a tiebreaker, though, and then overcame another nervous start and a 4-2 deficit to record his fifth victory over a top-10 player and his second of the season. He'll play Fabio Fognini next in a rematch of a Rio Open quarterfinal, which Dolgopolov won 6-1, 6-1.
Nadal's semifinal streak at Indian Wells ended at eight appearances. After his second loss in 19 matches this year, the 27-year-old Spaniard dismissed any discussion of the health of his back and chalked it up to a bad tournament.
"I never found a good feeling when I was on court competing this year," said Nadal, who needed three sets to beat No. 50 Radek Stepanek in his opening match. "I'm upset for that because I love this event. That's fine. It's impossible to be, every single week, in the last round of the tournament. I did for the first three tournaments of the year that I played. Today was an accident. I lost."
The three-time winner's exit opens his half of the draw for Roger Federer, Stanislas Wawrinka and Andy Murray, all of whom advanced to the fourth round on Monday.
Dolgopolov believes that the aura of invincibility surrounding the ATP's Big Four of Nadal, Federer, Novak Djokovic and Murray has been dented. Lower-ranked players are taking the court with far more belief than in years past.
"I don't think it's possible to play like they played all their career," Dolgopolov said. "It's normal that they are starting to have some up and downs and some younger guys get chances to beat them. That's life. All of us get older, and that's normal. Every generation is going to go and the younger ones are going to push. But I think it's good for the tour that the people see new people playing. It's more fun that way."
This post has been updated.