For the third consecutive tournament this season, Rafael Nadal won't be fighting for a title on his favorite surface.
Nadal, the No. 2-ranked player in the world, continued his slump on clay Saturday at the Madrid Open with a third straight semifinal elimination, adding to his worst start to the clay-court swing since 2015.
He lost to ninth-ranked Stefanos Tsitsipas, who will try to win his third title of the year in a final against top-ranked Novak Djokovic, who defeated Dominic Thiem 7-6 (2), 7-6 (4) and will have a chance to tie Nadal for the most titles in Masters 1000 tournaments with 33.
"It wasn't my best night," Nadal said. "I knew what I had to do, it was clear to me, but I just wasn't capable of doing it. I didn't have a good feeling to do the things I wanted to do and that's it. We don't have to dwell too much on it."
Nadal, who is still seeking his first title of the season, had also failed to make it to the final at Monte Carlo and Barcelona, tournaments he had won the past three seasons. He lost to Fabio Fognini in Monte Carlo and to Thiem in Barcelona. This is the first time since 2004 that Nadal had arrived in Madrid without a title.
"I've won a lot over the years on this surface," he said." But this year it hasn't been the case. I've been really close, but I haven't been able to win."
Nadal, who was yet to lose a set in Madrid this year, had beaten Tsitsipas all three previous times they played, without losing a set, including in the semifinals of the Australian Open.
Tsitsipas, 20, converted on his fourth match point to close out the victory on the Magic Box center court.
"I'm really happy that I managed to keep my nerves down and fight back. Probably one of the toughest victories I've had in my life," Tsitsipas said. "Adding variety and being unpredictable was the key today."
Tsitsipas played aggressively from the start, breaking Nadal's serve six times. He saved 11 of the 16 break opportunities he conceded.
"I really liked my fighting spirit," he said. "I went on the court and I was mentally prepared for a fight."
Tsitsipas will be playing in his fourth final of the season and will have a chance to become the first player to win three titles this year, adding to his triumphs at Estoril and Marseille. He is the tour's winningest player in 2019 with 27 wins.
"I have to be mentally prepared for a tough match," said Tsitsipas, who defeated Djokovic in Toronto last year. "He's in a pretty good state of his tennis, so it won't be easy."
DJOKOVIC ON TOP
Djokovic can add to his Australian Open title Sunday thanks to his confidence-boosting victory over an in-form Thiem.
"Dominic is one of the best tennis players in the world at this moment, especially on this surface, so this was a very big win for me," Djokovic said.
The fifth-seeded Thiem, who beat Roger Federer in the quarterfinals, had won two straight against Djokovic and was trying to make his third straight Madrid final following losses to Nadal in 2017 and Alexander Zverev in 2018. The Austrian was also attempting to become the first player to win three titles this season, adding to triumphs at Indian Wells and Barcelona.
"I thought he was the favorite coming into this match because of his win in Barcelona and the way he played winning against Roger yesterday," said Djokovic, who will be trying to add to his Madrid titles from 2011 and 2016.
"I was still kind of trying to find my best game on clay," Djokovic said. "These are exactly the matches that I need. I'm very, very pleased with this win."
Thiem played well in both sets but Djokovic prevailed in both tiebreakers.
"I think that to beat these players, Novak, or Rafa, you need to have this little luck, this momentum going for you, and that was not the case today," Thiem said. "Some break points for me were a little bit unlucky and some of them I missed, which I usually don't do."