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Rafael Nadal loses to Fernando Verdasco in Miami Open third round

No. 34 Fernando Verdasco handed Rafael Nadal his earliest exit from the Miami Open since 2006, powering past him 6-4, 2-6, 6-2 in the third round. 

No. 34 Fernando Verdasco handed Rafael Nadal his earliest exit from the Miami Open since 2006 by powering past the No. 3 seed 6-4, 2-6, 6-2 in the third round. Verdasco, who had lost their first 13 matches, now has a two-match win streak over Nadal after beating him on the blue clay at the 2012 Madrid Open. This was his first top-10 win in more than a year. 

The loss means Nadal could drop out of the top five following Miami depending on the results of Andy Murray, Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic and David Ferrer. After finishing a string of clay tournaments in February by winning his first title since the French Open last year, Nadal couldn't sustain the momentum on the U.S. hard courts. He lost to Raonic despite holding three match points in the BNP Paribas Open quarterfinals, but told reporters he was playing the right way and confident in how he was hitting the ball. That confidence was lacking against Verdasco. 

[] The runner-up in Miami last year, Nadal struggled to find his range in the windy conditions and his serve was largely ineffective throughout the match. He was broken twice in the first set as Verdasco took aggressive cuts, which were landing short off Nadal's racket. For his part, Verdasco seemed to turn back the clock to their ridiculously high-quality clash at the 2009 Australian Open semifinals that Nadal won 6-7(4), 6-4, 7-6(2), 6-7(1), 6-4. The best of Verdasco's raw power and speed was on full display Sunday, as he found a way to hit through the conditions, the slow court and pin Nadal far behind the baseline. 

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​​Nadal's game fell apart after rallying to take the second set to force a decisive third. He won just two of 17 points off Verdasco's first serve in the final set. Given Verdasco's known issues of getting nervous when closing out matches, Nadal needed to keep the pressure on Verdasco's service games. Nadal couldn't recover after falling behind 1-3 and truggled to get a clean hit. Verdasco immediately took control with Nadal's balls landing short and sitting up in the wind. Stuck in a deep defensive position, Nadal put forehand return after forehand return softly into the net just when he needed to make Verdasco play. It was an uncharacteristically timid finish for Nadal. He finished with 18 winners to 32 unforced errors, going just 3-for-12 on break points. Verdasco hit 29 winners to 36 unforced errors, going 3-for-6 on break points. 

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This marks the first time since 2004 that Nadal failed to make at least one semifinal during the Indian Wells/Miami double.

Despite the loss, there's good news for Nadal: The season now heads over to European clay, the surface he has owned for a decade. He will go from Miami, a tournament he has never won, to one he has taken eight times, the Monte Carlo Masters, which begins on April 11th. 

Hot shot highlight 

Everything was going right for Verdasco.

Nadal wasn't the only top men's seed to tumble out early in Miami. No. 7 seed Stan Wawrinka capped off a dismal North American swing, losing 7-6, 7-6 to No. 28 seed Adrian Mannarino. Wawrinka lost his opening round match in Indian Wells two weeks ago to Robin Haase.

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Earlier in the day, No. 1 Serena Williams put on a 41-minute clinic in her 6-1, 6-1 win over 15-year-old CiCi Bellis. Williams advances to the fourth round to play Svetlana Kuznetsova, who beat Angelique Kerber in three sets. Sloane Stephens also continued her resurgence, beating Johanna Larsson 6-4, 6-4 to match her career-best showing in Miami. She'll play 18-year-old Belinda Bencic in the fourth round. 

Flavia Pennetta scored a minor upset in her 7-6, 7-6 win over Victoria Azarenka. She'll play No. 3 Simona Halep, who beat Camila Giorgi in straight sets.