It is the law of nature: the old must eventually give way to the young. But while the old still think they are able to compete with the young, you try knocking them off their perch. The old lion will shred the cocky young incomer in order to keep control of his pride; it will take a brave youngster to challenge the old bull elephant.
Now, in this array of noble beasts, the goat does not feature large. Oh, sure, they can be uppity wee fellas and anyone trying to interrupt their 24-hour-a-day eating schedule is likely to get a wallop up the fundament, but kings of the jungle? You can’t really see it, can you.
Yet Roger Federer has been showing that GOATs can be proud, they can be territorial and they can be ferocious. The majestic Fed is, of course, not your run-of-the-mill, pungent, irritable herbivore. No, the Swiss master is the Greatest Of All Time and much as time is running against him – he will be 32 in August – he is not willing to let anyone challenge him. Not yet awhile, anyway.
On Saturday night, Federer repelled all that Australia’s great hope, Bernard Tomic, could throw at him as he eased into the fourth round (and without a set dropped so far). That was one young pretender dealt with. Now he faces Milos Raonic, the 22-year-old Canadian with the huge game and bigger serve and, as always, the young man comes in with nothing to lose while Federer has his reputation as a GOAT to defend. For the up-and-comer, every match against Fed is like the Grand Final, the Super Bowl and the FA Cup final all rolled into one. For Fed, it is just another day at the office and, he hopes, just another step on his path towards another Grand Slam final.
The two have met three times before with Federer winning every time. But it has not been easy, as the world No.2 is the first to admit.
“I've had some tough matches with him in the past,” Federer said. “All of them went the distance. Some of them I should have lost, maybe one or two. Indian Wells, I felt like I was more in control than the other two. In Madrid I was in a lot of trouble. Halle was extremely close.
“We'll see this time around how it's going to be. He's obviously got one of the best serves in the game. Up-and-coming. So you always feel, especially after an off‑season like the one we've just had, he's maybe improved again a few things or he's worked on a few things. So you would expect maybe some more unexpected stuff that he didn't do last time around. We'll see how it goes. I'm excited about the match, anyhow.”
Raonic is a self-confessed work in progress: if it is not his fitness or his game that needs attention, it is his mind as he strives to turn himself into the finished article. And sounding for all the world like an old hippie, he is hoping someday to “find himself” as a tennis player. A big lad, he knows he needs focus on the details to avoid injuries while on court, he needs to keep his emotions in check. When he can do both, he thinks he will have found himself. At the moment, the search is going well but he is still looking.
“The thing, I think, is staying calm and staying very flat-lined throughout a match is very important for myself, from the mental side,” he said in serious tone. “I found a lot of belief in myself.”
That is as maybe, but Raonic knows that taking on the old GOAT will take more than good vibes and good karma. He needs to believe in himself like never before and to draw on every experience he has had of playing the Fed in the past. Oh, and he needs to be feeling 100 per cent – he has been running a bit of a fever in recent days – and playing out of his skin. That’s easy, then.
“I think I played well in the other matches,” Raonic said. “I think I got pretty damn close the one time in Madrid. I got pretty close in Halle. I just know how to deal with it. I think I have a higher tolerance within myself and a higher belief within myself stepping up against Roger.
“I have to go out there and do my job. Take care of my serve is number one. Really dictate or try to dictate as much as I can and go for it, not get in too much rhythm. Sort of similar to today. I think he deals much better with that. But not give him too much rhythm. Sort of sink my teeth into the match as much as I can. Not just go for it out there, give it my all, stay aggressive as much as I can, try to get ahead in as many points as I can.”
But that is just what Tomic thought, especially when he had Federer cornered in the second set tiebreak. And then look what happened.
“It's Roger,” Raonic said having watched the GOAT suppress the youthful ambitions of his friend. And it is also the law of the jungle. For the time being at least, old Fed’s teeth and claws are as sharp as ever and the kids had better watch out.