MADRID — Rafael Nadal, the king of clay, on Friday lost his first match in a year on his beloved surface, and will relinquish the No. 1 ranking as a result.
In front of a stunned Spanish crowd, Dominic Thiem of Austria ousted Nadal in the quarterfinals of the Madrid Open, 7-5, 6-3.
The seventh-ranked Thiem was also the last player to beat Nadal on clay, last May at the Italian Open in Rome. But more recently, Nadal had twice trounced Thiem on clay, losing only nine games in five sets. Nadal won last year’s Madrid tournament by beating Thiem in the final.
It was a bitter loss for Nadal, a day after he reached another milestone. On Thursday night, against Diego Schwartzman, Nadal won his 50th consecutive set on clay, breaking the 34-year record held by John McEnroe for consecutive sets won on a single surface. (McEnroe’s winning streak came on carpet.)
But in the first game of the match on Friday, Nadal quickly learned that he was facing a very aggressive opponent, as he was forced to save two break points to hold his serve.
Thiem was hitting winners on both sides of the court, forcing Nadal to display his full range of defensive shots. Thiem finally broke Nadal at 3-3, but the Spanish champion clawed his way back into the set and saved a set point at 4-5 down, when Thiem hit a forehand long.
After Thiem double-faulted, Nadal leveled at 5-5 to the delight of the crowd. But Nadal then uncharacteristically lost his accuracy and was broken once again, after hitting a wayward smash and then somehow netting the ball after Thiem mis-hit a short forehand. Serving at 6-5, Thiem wrapped up the set with an ace and then clutched his fist, aware that winning one set against Nadal on Madrid’s clay was in itself a significant breakthrough.
Early in the second set, Nadal was in trouble again. At 1-1, he saved four break points but eventually lost the game with another forehand wide. Even so, Thiem struggled to take charge, turning the set into a topsy-turvy affair. On his next service game, Thiem saved two break points of his own, including one with a courageous approach to the net. Nadal hit the ball at his feet, but Thiem managed a half-volley that turned into an irretrievable drop shot.
Serving at 2-3, Thiem again found himself down by 15-40. He saved the first break point, but then tried to hit a risky forehand that sailed long, allowing Nadal to level the set at 3-3.
But Nadal again lost his serve. As Thiem took a 4-3 lead, the stadium’s audio and visual systems stopped working, turning the giant screens blank and leaving the umpire unable to announce the score over the loudspeakers.
By this stage, though, Thiem did not need anybody telling him that he was on his way to a major upset victory. With the partisan crowd also turning more silent, he won his next service game at love, hitting three missile forehands that landed as if guided toward the same corner spot, well out of reach of Nadal as he scrambled across the baseline.
With a fabulous backhand winner down the line, Thiem reached his first match point at 3-5. But Nadal served his way out of trouble. Thiem then converted his second opportunity, ending Nadal’s incredible run on clay and winning the match in just under two hours.
In the semifinals on Saturday, Thiem will face Kevin Anderson, the South African who was a finalist at the last United States Open. In the other men’s semifinal, Alexander Zverev will play Denis Shapovalov.
After the match, Thiem said that his make-or-break approach to playing Nadal had paid off.
“If I just played like I would normally, you have no chance,” Thiem said. “It has to be a special day — the shots have to work — and that was the case today.”
Nadal had beaten Thiem, 6-0, 6-2, in the quarterfinals of the Monte Carlo Masters three weeks ago.
“He was better than me today,” Nadal said. “That’s the end of the story.”
Nadal said that he “didn’t read the ball good enough” and struggled with Thiem’s heavy topspin shots in the high-altitude conditions in Madrid, compared with seaside Monte Carlo and Barcelona, his most recent tournament wins.
“The ball here flies a lot,” Nadal said.
On Monday, Roger Federer, who is skipping the clay-court season and has not played a match since March 24, will overtake Nadal at the top of the rankings.
“I lost the No. 1 before, but what makes me happy is I feel fit, can compete with possibilities every single week,” Nadal said.
Nadal pulled out of two tournaments last fall with injuries and then retired from his quarterfinal match at the Australian Open in January because of a leg injury. He did not play another match on tour until mid-April.
“You cannot be No. 1 with five months without competing,” he said.
Asked about Nadal’s performance against Thiem, Àlex Corretja, a former captain of Spain’s Davis Cup team who is now a television commentator, said, “It’s clear nobody ends a record run by playing his best match, and I’m pretty sure Rafa won’t count this as the day on which he was the most consistent and precise.”
On the women’s side, the two-time Madrid champion Petra Kvitova beat Karolina Pliskova, 7-6 (4), 6-3, in an all-Czech semifinal. Kvitova will meet Kiki Bertens in the final after Bertens beat seventh-seeded Caroline Garcia, 6-2, 6-2.
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