Top-ranked Rafael Nadal lost to Dominic Thiem 7-5, 6-3 in the Madrid Open quarterfinals on Saturday (NZ time), breaking the defending champion's run of 21 straight wins on clay courts.

Nadal hadn't lost a single set on clay since falling to Thiem a year ago in the Italian Open quarterfinals.

Since that loss, Nadal had been impeccable on his preferred surface. He won the French Open and the hard-court US Open to take his grand slam haul to 16, and he came to the Spanish capital fresh off winning his 11th titles at both Monte Carlo and Barcelona.

But Thiem succeeded in doing the nearly impossible with his deep drives: make Nadal look sluggish and a step slow on clay.

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"Of course I am disappointed," Nadal said. "I tried to fight back but I wasn't good enough and he was better."

Thiem got the better of long rallies by hitting precise winners, and avoided the costly errors that sunk Nadal's title defence.

Rafael Nadal of Spain in action during his match against Dominic Thiem of Austria. Photo / Getty Images
Rafael Nadal of Spain in action during his match against Dominic Thiem of Austria. Photo / Getty Images

The fifth-seeded Austrian earned his third career victory in nine meetings with Nadal, all on clay. He also avenged his loss to Nadal here in last year's final.

"It's one of the toughest things to do to beat Rafa on clay," Thiem said. "It's so special, amazing, in his home country and in his living room in Madrid. I can just be happy. It was an amazing match."

Thiem will face sixth-seeded Kevin Anderson in the semifinals after he hit 15 aces to down Dusan Lajovic 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-3.

Nadal said on Friday, after breaking John McEnroe's 1984 record for sets won on the same surface by winning his 50th straight set on clay, that he expected the match against Thiem to be "key to this tournament".

He was right to be worried.

Thiem unsettled Nadal from the start, breaking his serve twice in the first set.

Dominic Thiem of Austria celebrates after winning his match against Rafael Nadal. Photo / Getty Images
Dominic Thiem of Austria celebrates after winning his match against Rafael Nadal. Photo / Getty Images

Nadal appeared to have salvaged the opening set when he broke Thiem back for 5-5, but the Austrian took the advantage right back after Nadal sent a forehand into the net.

Thiem then struck an ace to complete the set.

His shirt drenched in sweat, Nadal looked stunned in the second set when he sent four serves in a row into the net for back-to-back double faults before he ceded another break to go down 2-1.

Nadal pulled back a break, but couldn't defend his serve and Thiem broke him twice more, finishing off the world No 1 with one final forehand winner.

"If you want to beat him, especially on clay, you have to do something special. If I had played normal I would have no chance," Thiem said. "I had to go for shots and go down the line and everything worked today. To beat Rafa on clay you have to have a special day."

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