Andy Murray's hopes of an extended run at the Rome Masters came to an end with a straight-sets defeat by Spain's 13th seed David Ferrer in the third round.
Murray had ended a three-match losing streak with victory over Andreas Seppi in the previous round, but found the in-form Ferrer a far tougher test.
Ferrer broke once in each set to win 6-3 6-4 in one hour and 36 minutes.
Defending champion Rafael Nadal and second seed Novak Djokovic both reached the quarter-finals.
Djokovic made the last eight with a 6-4 6-4 victory over Thomaz Bellucci, before Nadal eased past Victor Hanescu 6-3 6-2 in the late match.
Murray, seeded fourth, put in a better display than some of his recent efforts but he still looks well short of the form that took him to the Australian Open final earlier this year.
A sublime drop shot on the opening point boded well for the Scot's chances and he had the first half-chance at 30-30 in game five, but Ferrer held on and then attacked the fragile Murray serve.
With the Briton getting fewer than 30% of his first serves in, Ferrer took control with his return and broke at the first opportunity when Murray netted a forehand.
I'm disappointed to lose but I was a lot happier with the way I hit the ball
Murray did well to earn two break points of his own in the following game but the relentless hitting and retrieval powers of Ferrer proved too much.
The Spaniard had a couple of wobbles on his way to closing out the set, letting a couple of set points slip away in game eight before battling back from 0-30 to seal it in game nine.
Murray managed to improve the level of his serving at the start of the second set and looked ready to make a real battle of it with a break point at 3-3, but Ferrer took the initiative and moved into the net to thump away a smash.
That was to be Murray's last chance. His own failure to put away a regulation smash in the following game allowed Ferrer back into the game, and on the third break point Murray's forehand again let him down as he found the net.
Ferrer recovered from 0-30 in game eight and went on to serve out his 21st clay-court win of the year - more than any other player - and leave Murray to head to Madrid in search of some wins ahead of next month's French Open.
"In terms of the way I was striking the ball it was a different level to the last two tournaments - way, way better," said Murray.
"I just need to serve and return better, which are two basic things you tend to do better the more matches you play. I didn't do the basics as well as I would have liked."
He added: "The only disappointing thing was I wasn't able to create more break point opportunities, as normally that's one of the best points of my game.
"This week I felt so much better than I did in Monte Carlo. This tournament is a step in the right direction compared with the last couple of weeks, which were going the wrong way.
"I'm disappointed to lose but I was a lot happier with the way I hit the ball."
Djokovic will play Fernando Verdasco next after the Spaniard eliminated compatriot Guillermo Garcia-Lopez 6-4 7-6 (7-2) to take his record on clay this year to 13 wins and two defeats.
"I don't think I'm the favourite at all," said Djokovic. "I suppose if I play an aggressive game then I will have a good chance to win.
"The last time we played I really didn't feel good on the court. I made a lot of unforced errors and didn't really give the real picture of my game."
Seventh seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga beat Colombian qualifier Santiago Giraldo 6-3 6-4 and will face Ferrer in the last eight, while fifth seed Robin Soderling went down 6-3 6-2 to Stanislas Wawrinka.
The top quarter of the draw has a surprising look following the early exit of top seed Roger Federer, with his conqueror Ernests Gulbis beating Filippo Volandri 6-2 3-6 7-6 (7-4) to set up a clash with Feliciano Lopez, who had a walkover after Ivan Ljubicic pulled out with a back injury.
Nadal takes on Romanian Victor Hanescu in the night match.
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