PARIS – "Nadal, Nadal."
The little boys cheered as they jumped up and down in excitement. They formed a line to get into Court 10 at Roland Garros on Wednesday, where Rafael Nadal was practicing for Friday's semifinal against No. 1 Roger Federer.
The small court affords seating on only one side, and it turned into something of a mosh pit as parents brought their children in for a glimpse of Nadal. Pictures snapped. People jockeyed for position. They didn't stay long. Practices aren't thrilling. They just wanted to see the guy who might become the first to win the title in his debut since Mats Wilander won the French Open in his debut in 1982.
Over on Court 4, Federer also prepared for their match, with a left-handed partner since Nadal is one of the few lefties on tour.
"We have very few very good lefties," Federer said after his 6-2, 7-6 (3), 6-3 victory against Victor Hanescu in the quarterfinals. "In a way, it's something that we have missed in the last years since we lost Rios and Ivanisevic on the circuit.
"We have to get used to playing against Nadal because we have very, very few players playing like he does."
Federer, too, had his share of spectators coming in to catch a glimpse, except his court was slightly bigger, offering two sides of seating, so there was no need to stand on chairs.
Who does the public favor?
"Well, I don't know," Nadal said after defeating David Ferrer in straight sets to reach the semifinals. "He's No. 1, I'm 18. It's important, obviously. It's a factor. Well, we'll see who's the favorite. I think it's 50-50 basically."
On this surface, the numbers actually favor Nadal. He has a .838 career winning percentage on clay and a .947 winning percentage this year. Federer has a .704 career win percentage on clay and a .933 win percentage this year.
Nadal, however, never has won a Grand Slam title. In contrast, If Federer wins the French Open, he will become only the sixth man in history to win all four events – the career Grand Slam. Of the current players, only Andre Agassi can claim that honor.
"[We're] not quite there yet, are we?" Federer said. "But that would be definitely a dream come true [to win the French Open]. Because like you all know, it would mean that I won them all. At 23, 24, that would be quite something."
Nadal has dropped only one set so far, Federer none. Federer dropped at least one set on his way to his four previous major titles but lost only one set when he won Wimbledon in 2003. Nadal's 22-match win streak is second only to Federer's 25.
Simply put, you'll see the two best players in the world fighting to reach what would be for each, his first French Open final.
"We'll play the match like there's no tomorrow," Federer said, "and just make sure the one who gets through is very fit and goes at the same [level] again for the final."
"I hope it's not going to be like in Miami," Nadal said, "because, you know, it was a five-set match. I lost.
"Here, it's a different surface. We're on clay. It's going to be different."
They are 1-1 (with both matches in Miami), and this will be their first meeting on clay. Nadal is 36-2 on clay this year with five titles – two of those Masters Series events. He missed the French Open the past two years because of injuries.
"I'm very happy," said Nadal, whose birthday is on Friday. "A final would be unbelievable for me – especially at 19."
Federer finished the 2004 season with a .925 winning percentage. This year, after 46 matches, his winning percentage is higher: .958. He is so confident, it was almost refreshing to hear that he got a bit nervous trying to close out his quarterfinal, and made multiple double faults.
"I was so happy the way I was playing, and making my first semifinals appearance. I got a little overexcited there, I guess, just for a couple of minutes," Federer said.
Nadal said he came into the tournament hoping only to reach the semifinals. Because of scheduling, his coach has two days to help him concentrate on winning the title. At Wednesday's practice, the normally outgoing Nadal looked focused and businesslike.
"He is the favorite, no? He [has] the pressure," Nadal said. "He is the No. 1. I will try to play my best tennis for win, no? I think I can win if I play my best tennis, and if he don't play the best match, no?"