For the last 15 years, Rafael Nadal has dominated at the ATP 500 event in Barcelona almost like no one before him at the favorite tournament in general, winning 61 out of 64 matches and conquering 11 titles from 14 appearances.
After losing in the semi-final in Monte Carlo last Saturday, Nadal will stay empty-handed in Barcelona as well after a 6-4, 6-4 loss to Dominic Thiem in two hours and four minutes. Struggling with injuries, Nadal kicked off the clay swing with high hopes but we are yet to see his best tennis on the slowest surface that made him the best clay-courters in history, lacking speed and depth and competing miles behind the level from 2017 and 2018.
Thiem was one of only four players who have managed to beat Nadal on clay at least three times and he has now passed Fabio Fognini and Gaston Gaudio, becoming only the second player after Novak Djokovic with four ATP wins against Rafa on dirt.
Nadal had never lost after reaching the quarter-final in Barcelona but he stood no chance today, never creating a break point before the last game of the match (this could have been his fourth ATP match on clay without break points, the first since 2003) and suffering two breaks to push Thiem into the title match.
Two years ago, the Austrian won just five games against Rafa in the final here and we saw utterly different encounter today, with the younger player having the edge on both serve and return to bring the match home in straight sets.
Defending his backhand wing on the return and crushing Nadal with deep and powerful groundstrokes that left the 11-time champion with no answer. Lacking the free points from the initial shot despite the fact he landed 75% of the first serve in, Rafa had to work hard all the time and simply had no energy for that today against the opponent who did everything right on the court from start to finish.
Charging in his service games in the opener, Dominic lost only six points in five service games and a break of serve was inevitable, moving 3-2 up after a costly double fault from Rafa and securing the opener with a forehand winner at 5-4 after just under an hour.
Just like in the opener, Dominic earned a break in the fifth game and he was thundering towards the finish line before that tenth game when he served for a peerless triumph. Out of sudden, Nadal created three break points in game ten but it wasn't to be for him, with Thiem keeping his focus to save them all and grab five straight points for the place in the final where he will battle against Dominic Thiem.
"Despite a loss, I think my confidence is back and I believe I have made very important improvements and created a good base for try to achieve my goals in the next couple of weeks. Unlike that match against Fognini in Monte Carlo, I played well against Thiem, competing on a high level against a great opponent.
I was competitive and enjoyed the match, happy with my improvements and how I felt on the court. The serve was very important element in today's match, mine didn't work well, especially the second, trying to hit as many first serves as I could since I knew the second was under pressure.
Thiem played great, doing all the things he had to do very well, he is a great player and a great guy and I wish him all the best. A couple of players could become world no. 1 and Dominic is among them, it depends on his results in the future and I would love to see that coming."