But Thiem was more than capable of rising to the challenge, maintaining remarkable intensity and ferocity of stroke throughout the contest, eventually securing a 6-4 6-4 win in just over two hours to set up a final against Daniil Medvedev.
To put the win into context, Nadal had previously only lost one set in the semi-finals or beyond in 22 Barcelona matches. Indeed, he had never even dropped a set in the semi-finals before Thiem came storming through the door.
While Thiem – who beat Federer to win a first Masters 1000 title at Indian Wells last month – has always had huge pace behind his strokes, his defensive play, movement and use of the drop-shot were all exemplary and he defended his serve with great focus.
To suggest he will topple Nadal at Roland Garros – where he lost in the final last year – come the end of the season is perhaps premature. But make no mistake, a Dominic Thiem in this mood will take some stopping.
Nadal struggled on serve early on, hitting four double faults in his opening three service games. The fourth gifted Thiem the first break.
The heavy-hitting Austrian so nearly had a second, setting up four break points in a tense 13-minute game at 2-4 but the 17-time Grand Slam champion survived.
It did little to affect Thiem, however, and the world No. 5 continued thumping the ball relentlessly on his way to a one-set lead.
There was no slowing down in the second set as Thiem crushed his way through the Spaniard to break for a 3-2 lead, hitting one particularly stunning backhand passing shot, which left Nadal puffing his cheeks out in exasperation.
Though he continued to fight, wave after wave of attacks from his opponent continued to roll through and Thiem wrapped up a potentially huge win in the context of this year’s clay-court season.
Earlier on, Medvedev continued his fast start on clay in 2019 with a win over two-time champion Kei Nishikori.
The Russian was down a break early in the decider but clawed his way back into the contest to beat the Japanese No. 1 6-4 3-6 7-5.
His results on this surface have improved dramatically. Medvedev won just one match on clay in 2018 but has already reached the semi-finals in Monte Carlo – his first Masters 1000 semi-final – and will now contest a seventh career final, having won four of his previous six.
Britain’s Jamie Murray and partner Bruno Soares are also enjoying good form on the crushed brick.
The pair were beaten semi-finalists in Monte Carlo but, like Medvedev, have gone one step further to reach the final in Barcelona.
Murray’s compatriot Joe Salisbury and partner Raven Klaasen were on the losing side of a tight result, with Murray/Soares triumphing 4-6 6-3 11-9.
The pair will take on either Spanish duo Pablo Carreno Busta and Feliciano Lopez or Colombia’s Robert Farah and Juan Sebastian Cabal.
Elsewhere, WTA No. 1 Naomi Osaka was forced to withdraw from her semi-final against Anett Kontaveit in Stuttgart.
The Japanese fought back against Donna Vekic in Friday’s quarter-finals but suffered an abdominal injury, which saw her pull out of the next tie.
‘I’m really sorry I’m not able to compete for the semis today,’ Osaka said.
‘I unfortunately got injured yesterday and I was waiting to see if I could get better but unfortunately I didn’t.’
Kontaveit will go onto play Petra Kvitova after the Czech defeated Kiki Bertens 7-6 (7-3) 3-6 6-1.
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