By TALES AZZONI AP Sports Writer
MADRID (AP) — Rafael Nadal's slump on clay continued with a 6-4, 2-6, 6-3 loss to ninth-ranked Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece in the semifinals of the Madrid Open on Saturday.
It was the third straight semifinal elimination for Nadal, adding to his worst start to the clay swing since 2015.
Tsitsipas 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 Master 1000 tournaments with 33.
In the women's final, Kiki Bertens beat two-time Madrid champion Simona Halep 6-4, 6-4.
Nadal, still seeking his first title of the season, had also failed to make it to the final in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, tournaments he had won the last three consecutive seasons.
The 20-year-old Tsitsipas converted on his fourth match point to close out the victory against the second-ranked Nadal on the Magic Box center court.
THE JOKER LAUGHS AGAIN
Novak Djokovic got the win he needed to boost his confidence on clay.
He defeated an in-form Dominic Thiem 7-6 (2), 7-6 (4) Saturday to reach the Madrid Open final for the third time.
"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," the top-ranked 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 Rafael 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 in 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 face either Nadal or Stefanos Tsitsipas, who play later Saturday.
It will be the second final of the season for Djokovic, who began the year by winning the Australian Open.
"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."
A victory on Sunday will give Djokovic his 33rd Masters 1000 title, tying Nadal for most all time.
Last year's runner-up Bertens defeated Halep for her second title of the year, adding to her victory in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The seventh-ranked Dutch became the first woman to win the Madrid title without dropping a set. She had victories over three Grand Slam champions in the Spanish capital — Jelena Ostapenko, Sloane Stephens and Petra Kvitova. Bertens lost to Kvitova in last year's final.
Halep, winner in Madrid in 2016 and 2017, lost the chance to take over the No. 1 ranking from Naomi Osaka.
DJOKOVIC ON TOP
Djokovic, who won in Madrid in 2011 and 2016, had played only four sets in the Spanish capital this week ahead of the semifinals. He didn't play his quarterfinal match because Marin Cilic withdrew with food poisoning.
Thiem got off to a good start by breaking Djokovic in the third game of the match, but the Serb quickly got back on serve and then cruised in the opening tiebreaker, dropping only two points.
Thiem converted one of his many break opportunities to go 4-2 ahead in the second set, but again Djokovic quickly recovered, breaking back in the following game. The two exchanged two more breaks late in the set, and Djokovic eventually prevailed in the deciding tiebreaker.
"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."