© Peter Staples/ATP Tour

Rafael Nadal is 86-2 at Roland Garros.

Seeing Nadal Practice A Happy Surprise For Roland Garros Fans

Spaniard set to begin his quest for a 12th Roland Garros title

Vincent Balme didn't know who was practising inside Court Suzanne Lenglen, but the 39-year-old from Belgium saw droves of people running to Roland Garros' second biggest show court, and thought: We have to get there.

The Brussels resident was glad he did. Balme, along with his wife and two of their children, nestled into four seats together behind the baseline, about halfway up, to watch 11-time champion Rafael Nadal prepare for another historic run in Paris.

The Spaniard and Pablo Cuevas of Uruguay practised for nearly two hours in front of a nearly-full stadium as thousands of parents, along with their children, busied the grounds during Kids' Day at Roland Garros, where main draw play begins on Sunday. It was a stark change for Nadal, who practised in front of only credentialed spectators on Friday inside Court Philippe Chatrier.

But the Spaniard didn't mind the constant murmur from fans' chatter and surely appreciated the claps and cheers, "Allez!", after lengthy rallies and pleasing points. Balme and the thousands of fans enjoyed the session. “It's a nice surprise, and to see it real, it's much different than on TV,” Balme said.

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He was most impressed by Nadal's precision and his consistency, how he hits every ball well. “He places the ball where he wants... The racquet is a third arm,” Balme said.

He has followed the sport for the past 30 years but no longer plays regularly – a family of five and his job as a financial controller in the hotel industry keeps him plenty busy during the week.

But his two oldest children, 11-year-old Clemence and eight-year-old Thomas, both have been playing the sport since last year and were sandwiched in between Balme and his wife, Marjorie, 35.

It's a good opportunity for them to discover what real tennis is,” Balme said of Clemence and Thomas. “It's a good atmosphere also, and Roland Garros is really famous all around the world, so it's really nice.”

Clemence also watched in awe. “It's quite impressive, seeing it in person and not on the TV. I can't believe it,” she said, through her father's translation.

The 11-year-old, who plays with low-compression orange balls, was most impressed by Nadal's power. “She's not playing that hard,” her father said.

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Seeing Rafa the day before the season's second Grand Slam begins was also a happy accident for Martina Lombard and her 10-year-old boy, Emil. The Parisian boy was so eager to watch tennis at Roland Garros, he stopped at the first court he saw and gawked.

No, no, come on!” his mother told him. “There will not be many places.”

She wasn't far off, as more and more fans filled the stadium during Nadal's two-hour practice. Lombard, 43, said she had met Nadal years earlier on a train ride, when the Spaniard smiled and posed for a photo with her group. On Saturday, Nadal's focus caught her eye. “I think he's very concentrated,” she said.

What impressed Emil the most might be the key to whether Nadal wins his 12th Roland Garros title this fortnight. It wasn't Nadal's hustle or his intensity that the 10-year-old liked the most, but rather, Nadal's forehand.

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