Andy Murray's latest bid for a maiden clay title ended when he fell to Tomas Berdych in the Madrid Open quarter-finals on Friday, leaving Rafa Nadal as the only member of the 'big four' still alive at the Masters event.
World number three Murray had lost his last two matches on clay against Berdych, runner-up to Roger Federer in Madrid last year, and was beaten 7-6, 6-4 by the Czech sixth seed after Nadal battled past Spanish compatriot David Ferrer 4-6, 7-6, 6-0.
Second seed Federer, making his return after a seven-week rest, was knocked out in the third round by Japan's Kei Nishikori on Thursday, two days after a shock reverse for world number one and top seed Novak Djokovic against Grigor Dimitrov.
The heavyweight quartet of Djokovic, Federer, Murray and Nadal have won 26 straight tournaments going back to Rome 2010 when all four have featured in the draw.
Chasing a fourth title since coming back from a knee injury in February, Nadal will meet Pablo Andujar in Saturday's semi-finals after his countryman - a wild card ranked 113 in the world - upset 14th-seeded Nishikori in the quarter-final.
Big-hitting Berdych, who is yet to win a title in 2013, will take on 15th seed Stanislas Wawrinka for a place in Sunday's final after the Swiss beat seventh seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France 6-2, 6-7, 6-4 in Friday's late game.
"Even though I didn't start well I was able to turn the first set on my side, which was very important," Berdych told a news conference.
"You know, with him (Murray) it's never easy," added the 27-year-old. "Even though we played just two sets they were really long. You really have to fight a lot for a small chance."
Murray, 25, battled through a gruelling three-hour encounter against Frenchman Gilles Simon on Thursday that finished after one o'clock in the morning local time (12.00 a.m. British time) and the Scot appeared increasingly weary as Friday's match wore on.
He said he was frustrated not to have taken more than two of his nine chances to break Berdych's serve and that he was suffering from a sore hip at the start.
"I did play a very long match yesterday and finished extremely late so I was a bit stiffer probably than usual at the beginning but once I warmed up it felt better," he added.
"The Spaniards like starting late so you've just got to deal with it."
In the earlier match on the Manolo Santana show court, Nadal recovered from accidentally hitting himself in the face with his racket to see off world number four Ferrer, who is ranked one place higher following Nadal's seven-month layoff.
Ferrer showed why he is considered one of the most tenacious competitors on the circuit when he took the first set but Nadal clung on to edge the second set tiebreak 7-3 and then switched up a gear in the decider as Ferrer's game crumbled.
Nadal had a scare at 4-0 in the third set when his racket bounced up off the court as he was stretching down to play a shot and struck him above the eye.
After a brief interruption he was able to continue and closed out the victory on his first match point when he broke Ferrer for a seventh time.
"It was a very tight match," Nadal said in an interview with Spanish television broadcaster La Sexta.
"I think maybe David deserved more than me to be in the semi-finals but that's sport for you," the 26-year-old added.
"In the third set David dropped his intensity a bit and I didn't have to do all that much.
"I was playing aggressively on my forehand and I am very pleased with how that is going, it's working much better than in the events leading up to Madrid."
Ferrer, who had only beaten Nadal once on clay in 15 attempts, said he paid the price for an intense two-hour slug fest with German Tommy Haas in the third round on Thursday, when he came through 7-5, 4-6, 6-4.
"Today I was much more tired physically," the 31-year-old told a news conference. "Rafa is always favoured on clay. Without any doubt he's the best."
"Maybe with another player you can read the situation and stay in the point. But with Rafa, Djokovic, Federer or Murray you don't have any margin for error."
Former world number one Nadal will be chasing an eighth Roland Garros crown in Paris starting later this month.
Image: Rafael Nadal against David Ferrer
Photograph: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images