Rafael Nadal’s quest to become the first man in 42 years to win four straight grand slam events has ended cruelly, with a hamstring injury leading to a limp Australian Open quarter-final exit against fellow Spaniard David Ferrer.

The reigning French Open, Wimbledon and US Open champion, would have been within two victories of the historic feat – last accomplished by Australian legend Rod Laver in 1969 – had he overcome the seventh seed.

But despite Nadal having won their previous seven meetings, with Ferrer claiming a set in just one of those, the lower-ranked player took advantage of his weakened opponent to win 6-4 6-2 6-3.

Ferrer will play Scottish fifth seed Andy Murray in a semi-final, with Murray, along with the other semi-finalists Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, no doubt fancying their title chances more now that Nadal is out of the picture.

While Nadal won the Australian Open in 2009, Melbourne Park has since been the scene of two major disappointments.

Last year, he retired with a knee injury from a quarter-final when trailing Murray.

That was the only time he has failed to complete a grand slam match and also his last defeat at a major before losing to Ferrer, which broke a 25-match grand slam winning streak.

Nadal was dogged by illness coming into the Open, but had not dropped a set previously this tournament and showed no sign of injury when he started against Ferrer.

But, after a long first three games, the top seed called for a trainer and then a medical time-out.

After leaving the court, he returned with his upper left leg strapped and, obviously struggling, quickly fell down 5-2.

Ferrer muffed a chance to serve out the set at 5-3 and needed three set points in the following game to take the crucial one-set lead.

He also dropped serve early in the second, but sustained his level enough to win 11 of the last 14 games of the match, as the physical and emotional strain drained his countryman.

An increasingly morose Nadal showed spirit and sportsmanship by refusing to retire against his Davis Cup teammate.