THE tournament sets them up, and one by one, Roger Federer knocks them down; it has been that way for how long now?
This year, some first-round fodder, a grizzled veteran and two ambitious tyros so far have been ground beneath Federer's heel, now playfully pink-trimmed. Canadian Milos Raonic is a '90s-born, Serbian-backgrounded contemporary of Bernard Tomic, two years older with two more year's worth of accomplishments, seeded 13th here, but equally cocky. He is at an age and stage where he might begin to imagine making a name for himself at Federer's expense.
Ha! Raonic, like Tomic, stands 196 centimetres but otherwise is a different proposition. He is chubby-faced, still to lose the last of his puppy fat, and builds his game around a thumper of a serve, producing 1002 aces last year, second only to John Isner.
He reintroduced himself to Federer last night with a 238 km/h fault, followed by a 187 km/h swinger, acing the great man. Could an omen ever have been more misleading? Federer knuckled down to business. A previous victim of Raonic's had described their encounter as ''not really a match, just serve and return''. But any time Federer got past Raonic's first serve, they played a different match, requiring knowing and precise groundstrokes. At this, Federer has no master.
The serve issue became a red herring anyway. Federer got through Raonic's spasmodically, but always at exactly the right time - in the last game of the first set, in the tie-breaker in the second, and twice in a hurry at the start of the third set to leave the Canadian scratching his headband.
Federer's serve, though less arched-back spectacular than Raonic's, was utterly impregnable. In the first two sets, he lost only four points on it, total. He was never so inconvenienced as to have to save a single break point. He has not lost his serve in the tournament yet, nor a set.
The second set tie-breaker can speak on its own for the idea of the match. In it, Raonic served three aces, but won only one other point. Federer won points every which way. This night, unlike the Djokovic-Wawrinka marathon of the previous night, rallies were rare. Winning Raonic rallies were rarer still.
Generous as ever, Federer had said beforehand that his three previous matches against Raonic had been tight, and really, he should have lost a couple of them. On Monday night, there were no ifs, buts or maybes. This was a rout.
Done, Federer had time to make jokes, self deprecating. He wore a particular T-shirt, he said, so as not to alarm opponents with his over-developed musculature. "That's all the opponent sees when the big left arm goes up when I'm tossing the ball," he said. "Scary, scary stuff." Even in this joviality, there was a message: physical prowess alone will never get you past Roger Federer.
At 22, Raonic is still gathering experience, this night bitterly hard-won. At 31, Federer is getting younger. He is deep into the tournament now, his regular place. In a quarter-final, he plays France's energetic Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. With a certain combination of admittedly improbable results, he could finish the fortnight not just as champion, but back at No 1. It has been like this for how long now?