PARIS The entire tennis world and all of Paris will be glued to today's much-anticipated heavyweight battle between the game's best player, Roger Federer, and the game's best clay-courter, Rafael Nadal, in the semifinal of the greatest clay court event in the world. When the draw came out two weeks ago, a potential Federer-Nadal showdown was the buzz on the Roland Garros grounds, and on Friday we finally get the dream matchup. In the first match, surprise semifinalists Nikolay Davydenko and lefty gunslinger Mariano Puerta will face off in the biggest match of their lives for a spot in their first career slam final.
• Federer will face his greatest clay challenge to date against teen phenom Nadal. The fourth-seeded Nadal, who celebrates his 19th birthday Friday, has been one of the rare men on the circuit to have Federer's number over the last year. Nadal beat the world's top-ranked player in Miami last year, and this year at the same event he was up two sets and a break in the final before Federer found his form and rallied to win a five-set thriller. Both of those matches were on hard court, Federer's favored surface, while today's match is on the crushed red brick, the court of choice for the lefty Nadal.
The two combatants couldn't be playing any better coming into today's match. Federer has won his past 11 matches and 28 straight sets. Nadal sports a 22-match win streak, which is second only to Andre Agassi's 23 among teens in the open era. Nerves figure to play an important role, especially for Nadal, who is appearing in his first career Grand Slam semifinal. Federer, meanwhile, has been here before and is one of the game's greatest closers. The 23-year-old has lost just one match in nine appearances at this stage of a Slam, that coming to Marat Safin in five sets in Australia earlier this year.
• In the "undercard," unlikely semifinalists Davydenko (No. 12 seed) and Puerta (unseeded) meet in the biggest match of their lives. Davydenko has been one of the fast risers on the men's circuit this season, joining Federer as the only two players to reach the quarterfinals at both slams this year. On Monday, the reserved Russian, who turned 24 Thursday, pulled the upset of the tournament, defeating 2004 finalist Guillermo Coria in the fourth round. Then two days ago, Davydenko survived five sets against Tommy Robredo to raise his current win streak to 10 and reach his first slam final four.
Puerta has taken advantage of an easier road, but the Argentine also needed five sets to outlast countryman Guillermo Canas in the quarterfinals. A year ago, no one would have pegged Davydenko or Puerta as 2004 semifinalists here. Davydenko had just lost to Coria in three very easy sets in the first round, while Puerta, the 1995 French Open junior finalist, was off the circuit, serving a nine-month drug suspension which began in October 2003. Puerta returned to the tour ranked No. 440 last summer, at which time he began his journey back up the ranks to his career moment today. These two have met just once before, with Davydenko winning comfortably last month in Hamburg. But that was a second-round match; today, it's for a spot in the French Open final.
Stat du Jour: On his 25th birthday, Safin handed Federer his only career Grand Slam. On his 19th birthday, can Nadal duplicate the feat?