LONDON, (Reuters) – They know a thing or two about time in Switzerland — their cuckoo clocks, expensive wristwatches and unerring railway timetables are proof of that.
Yet it is the Alpine nation’s favourite son, Roger Federer, who has apparently mastered the art of reversing it.
The Peter Pan of men’s tennis took his time machine to Rotterdam this week and yesterday posted a 4-6 6-1 6-1 victory over Dutchman Robin Haase to reach the semi-finals of the ABN AMRO tournament.
In doing so he is guaranteed a return to number one in the ATP world rankings for the first time since November 2012.
The 36-year-old father of two sets of twins becomes the oldest man ever to top the standings, replacing American Andre Agassi who was 33 when he last held the top spot in 2003.
Not only that but the gap of five years and 106 days between separate stints at the summit is the longest in ATP history.
He also sets a new record for the longest time between debuting as world number one (in 2004) and his latest stint — a record previously held by Rafael Nadal, the man Federer has knocked off the top of the pile.
Since Federer lost the top spot in 2012, when many predicted his best days were done, Novak Djokovic, Nadal and Andy Murray have all had lengthy periods on the throne but whereas the clock ticks ever louder for that battle-ravaged trio, Federer appears to have found a new dimension.
He is producing one of the best late-career runs by any sportsman. He claimed a record-extending 20th grand slam title by winning the Australian Open for a second successive year last month, becoming the oldest player to triumph in Melbourne since Ken Rosewall in 1972.
Incredibly, since turning 35 — an age still considered beyond the sell-by-date in the high-octane world of top-level tennis — Federer has won three of the last five grand slam titles on offer playing arguably the best tennis of his career.
Those craving eternal youth really should have a look at this man’s DNA.
Yet Federer, for all the unique magic that other players can only dream about, offers a far more pragmatic explanation for his ability to make a mockery of the ageing process.
When he was sidelined by a knee injury in 2016, forcing him to skip the French Open and snap a streak of 65 consecutive grand slam appearances, Federer took a career time-out. Though he played at Wimbledon that year, soldiering on to the semi-finals, he then shut down his season and came up with a formula designed to protect his knee and back and give him the chance to add several golden chapters to his career.
Quality not quantity was the essence of it and in 2017 he returned to play 12 tournaments, winning seven of them, including the Australian Open, a record eighth Wimbledon and Masters 1000 titles at Indian Wells, Miami and Shanghai.
“My philosophy is I play when I’m ready. What I did last year and what Rafael (Nadal) is doing also is maybe a bit of a lighter schedule,” he said this week in the Dutch port city.
“It shows to others by working or practising a bit more… you become a different or better player.
“I hope I take that fear away a little bit, that sometimes it’s OK to take time.”
Easy to say for an athlete for whom the clock appears to be slowing down, rather than speeding up as it does for mere mortals as the years pass, but fellow 30 somethings Nadal, Murray and Djokovic will take heart from his words of wisdom.
Fresh from winning his 20th grand slam title in Melbourne this month, Federer took a wildcard into the ABN AMRO World Tennis event with his eyes fixed on a return to number one for the first time since November 2012.
Needing to reach the last four to overtake great rival Nadal, Federer showed some early nerves in his quarter-final clash in the port city’s Ahoy Arena, dropping serve in the ninth game on his way to conceding the first set.
But the 36-year-old Swiss, as he usually does, moved through the gears to punish a physically struggling Haase.
A demoralised Haase double-faulted on match point and after an initially restrained celebration Federer sat on his chair and looked close to tears as his feat sank in — as did some of the Swiss fans leading the rapturous applause.
“Reaching number one is one of, if not the ultimate achievement in our sport,” Federer said on court after being handed a huge No.1 shaped plaque by Dutch former Wimbledon champion Richard Krajicek, the tournament director.
“Sometimes at the beginning you just kind of get there because you played so well, but later you have to fight for it and have to wrestle it back from someone who deserves to be there. When you are older you maybe have to put double the work in. This maybe means the most to me in my career.”
One of the greatest ever late-career runs by any sportsman or woman means he surpasses Agassi who was the previous oldest man to top the ATP rankings.
American Agassi was 33 when he scaled the summit in 2003.
He was one of the first to congratulate Federer.
“Roger Federer continues to raise the bar in our sport. Congratulations on yet another remarkable achievement!!” Agassi said on Twitter.
Federer will face either Italian Andrea Seppi or young Russian Daniil Medvedev in the semi-final as he closes in on a 97th career title.