Nadal has not arrived in Madrid without winning in either Monte Carlo or Barcelona since 2015 and, after also pulling out of Indian Wells due to a knee injury in March, concern was growing ahead of the French Open later this month.
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.
Not a seat was empty on Estadio Manolo Santana on Wednesday, as Nadal eked out a 6-3, 6-3 win over Canada's teenage prodigy Felix Auger-Aliassime.
Yet Nadal, the 11-time French Open victor, was philosophical: "What happened tonight is what happens in real life".
The two men have played each other once before, just 4 months ago, in the quarter-final of the Australian Open.
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.
But Thiem found the 31-year-old close to his best, delivering a timely reminder of why he has won the last three Grand Slam titles and will hold all four concurrently by winning his 16th at the French Open.
"Every match gives me the possibility to go a step forward, a step forward that can help me a lot in my game and during the season", Nadal said. "He has that drive and energy, and it will be a good test for me and an opportunity for me to play a tough match and to keep improving". That is because he was beaten at the semi-final stage in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, two events which he had nearly made his own over the years.
"It was a very important win for me against one of the best players in the world", said Djokovic, a two-time champion in Madrid.
Thiem failed to seize break-point opportunities in Djokovic's opening two service games of the second set but he finally made the breakthrough to go 4-2 up with a cross-court forehand victor at the end of another lengthy rally.
Halep, victor in Madrid in 2016 and 2017, lost the chance to take over the No. 1 ranking from Naomi Osaka.
"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.
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