Tennis And Watches: A 2019 Resumé Of The White Sport’s Ticks And Tocks
A year ago, following the close of the 2018 summer’s professional tennis season, I posted a resumé of the then-current state of the watch world’s seemingly enduring love affair with the white sport, taking stock of what I’d seen that summer on wrists and on courts.
The reason for my need to write such a resumé was what I considered the exploding nature of the juxtaposition, in particular considering the fact that very few tennis players wear timepieces on court – though it’s starting to look like more and more are indeed beginning to do so. This trend was perhaps reinvigorated by current world number two Rafael Nadal back in 2010 when he signed on with Richard Mille, who stipulated in the contract that the Spanish lefty must wear the RM 027 on court – no mean feat for someone as perfectionistic and obsessive in his rituals as Nadal.
Because of the high stresses and shocks a player’s arms and wrists experience in tennis, until Richard Mille signed Nadal as an ambassador watch brand sponsorships generally involved the player strapping on the watch only before and after matches. Playing professional tennis with a watch risked both upsetting the player’s game and the intricate mechanics of the timepiece – and nowhere was the latter point riskier than with Nadal’s beast-like game.
Nadal has said that today he can hardly imagine playing without his good luck charm: “It now feels like second skin,” he confirmed to me at a press conference at Roland Garros in 2015. After the RM 027, Richard Mille created other special editions for him: the RM 27-01, the RM 27-02, the RM 035, and the RM 27-03 – the latter being the one he currently wears; its bright two-tone Quartz TPT case coloring replicates the colors of the Spanish flag in honor of Nadal’s home country. And Nadal loves color.
Four of these Nadal pieces were among the top ten auction results for Richard Mille in 2015, which you can read more about in Richard Mille’s Top 10 Auction Pieces Of 2015.
Nadal recently won the 2019 U.S. Open, also no mean feat given the high quality of his competition. This championship title was his fourth win at the U.S. Open and his nineteenth Grand Slam title (including 12 – twelve! – French Open titles) over the course of a stellar career – just one behind Roger Federer, whose 20 Grand Slam wins have prompted a multitude of “GOAT” cries (with good reason).
Nadal, who is such a genuine man and player, was visibly moved at the end of his match, shedding a few tears as the trophy ceremony progressed.
Richard Mille and the Gerry Weber (Noventi) Open
Branching out in the sport, Richard Mille has been a main sponsor of the Gerry Weber Open since June 2018. This announcement coincided with the brand placing the RM 67-02 on a second high-profile tennis ambassador: world number six Alexander Zverev (who was number three in 2018).
As reported in 2018, Zverev became an ambassador through Nadal. Unfortunately, though, the bond was not as strong as that of Nadal and the watchmaker, who have now been together for nine years.
“When Richard Mille first met Rafa way back in 2008, he told him the partnership would be for life through thick and thin, win and lose,” a Richard Mille press release sent just after the Spaniard’s astounding 2019 U.S. Open win stated. “The RM 27-03 on Nadal’s wrist at Flushing Meadows last night bears witness to this enduring friendship.”
Though Zverev and the progressive watch brand are no longer partners, Richard Mille was still a main sponsor of the Gerry Weber Open – now called the Noventi Open – in 2019, one of the most delightful professional tennis tournaments I’ve ever had the pleasure to attend and the biggest and most important in Germany.
One of only eight grass court tournaments on the ATP calendar, the Noventi Open is an ATP World Tour 500 – meaning it comes right after the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 in importance. With more than €2 million in prize money, it is Germany’s largest tennis event and the third largest in Europe. The third most watched tennis event in Germany (television, streaming, etc.), it enjoys about 4,000 hours of television coverage in a variety of countries, boasting more than 33 million individual viewers.
Roger Federer won the 2019 event to snag his tenth title in Halle, where the tournament is played.
Weird and weirder: Serena Williams’ upside-down Audemars Piguet and Donna Vekić’s F.P. Journe on court
Right now it seems to me that there are more players than ever – including a great many, if not all of, the high-profile champions – with watch sponsorship deals. Though it is still rare (and admittedly a bit weird) to see a professional playing tennis with a watch on, remember that Nadal was not the first to do it.
However, he attracted a lot of attention when he started with Richard Mille back in 2010, followed by Stan Wawrinka also winning Grand Slam titles wearing bulky Audemars Piguet timepieces on his wrist: he won the 2016 U.S. Open wearing his automatic Royal Oak Offshore chronograph, a heavy 42 x 14.21 mm watch guaranteed to be noticeable to him during match play due to its heft, size, and weight.
Wawrinka had been wearing a version of the Royal Oak Offshore on court for about three years previous to that (including during his 2015 tournament win at Roland Garros), though preceding versions were encased in ceramic or forged carbon, much lighter materials. As he is a Swiss national, it may be a point of pride for him to wear such a noticeable Swiss icon on court, but without doubt this stainless steel version took some real getting used to.
For most, a watch worn on court would tend to be something of a distraction, even if it is worn on the opposite wrist. It is not only the weight of the timepiece that can be disturbing, but in particular the crown, which can poke the wrist if the player has a two-handed backhand or moves the arm very freely.
Serena Williams’ string of on-court Audemars Piguet timepieces (notably a quartz Royal Oak Offshore for ladies and an 18-karat gold ladies’ Millenary, both set with diamonds) – which came after she wore a few different Casios on court – can also be distracting for the observer as lately she has taken to wearing watches more for the jewelry value than timekeeping or sportiness. But nothing has been weirder than how she has worn her chosen AP this summer: upside down!
What the Quill & Pad team observed Williams wearing from Wimbledon 2019 through the U.S. Open 2019 is nothing short of perplexing to me: an upside-down Royal Oak Offshore Chronograph 37mm. While the likely reason for her wearing it upside down is not hard to figure out – crowns poking the wrist – what perplexes me is why she wears it at all on court if it’s disturbing her. As far as I’m aware she does not have the type of contract with Audemars Piguet that obligates her to wear a watch on court; my understanding is that she wants to wear it while playing.
She also owns a unique left-handed quartz Royal Oak – this we know because she wore it at Wimbledon 2016 and was also pictured with it on her wrist on the famous Wheaties box. So why wear a different watch with less ergonomic pushers? Wouldn’t you just opt not to wear any watch at all while playing if that one’s being serviced or something?
And speaking of unusual: there’s the case of Donna Vekić, ranked 21 in the world, and the F.P. Journe Élégante. This quartz-powered watch encased in gold or platinum and set with diamonds is really not the first watch I would think of if I decided to play tennis wearing an expensive Swiss made timepiece.
However, I recently learned that Vekić has been wearing this watch on court for close to two years. I guess it only came to my attention now because the 23-year-old Croatian tennis star reached the quarterfinals of the 2019 U.S. Open before bowing out to Swiss talent Belinda Bencic.
And then there is the unusual pairing of Bovet and Daniil Medvedev, currently world number four thanks to a summer string of wins and reaching the finals of the 2019 U.S. Open before bowing out in the finals in a tight five-setter against Nadal, a match pundits have been calling one of the greatest U.S. Open finals every played.
While to me this seemed about as unlikely a pairing as we’re ever going to see, the bold personality that Medvedev exhibited during the New York fortnight found me changing my mind. While at first his negative reactions to the New York crowds (which even I, as an American, find harsh) only produced further booing, the Russian player’s sense of self and cynicism finally won over the tennis-watching public.
A press release issued by Bovet the week before the U.S. Open 2019 stated that Medvedev and Bovet CEO Pascal Raffy “have much in common in their respective challenges: they both have to demonstrate continuous effort, abnegation, humility. Their meeting has even further manifested this sharing of values, always going forward by improving each day, the need to be and remain an incredible champion.”
A pretty, um, mundane description for this exciting, fresh face and his choice of watch, the Bovet Ottantasei Tourbillon, which is a sporty creation born of another partnership: that between Bovet and Italian automotive designer Pininfarina. Medvedev, however, has not chosen to wear this timepiece on court.
It was visible on his wrist in post-match interviews throughout his fabulous run at the 2019 U.S. Open. Tennis needs strong personalities, and Medvedev is definitely one of those. Congratulations on the foresight, Bovet!
Zenith: a surprise entry in the tennis world or making the best of the local best?
Zenith is not a brand with natural ties to the world of tennis, so I puzzled a bit as to why the Le Locle-based brand sponsors the Swiss Open Gstaad, an ATP 250 tournament I had already visited back in 2004 when Maurice Lacroix had just signed on the then-22-year-old Roger Federer (who left a year later to begin his now-iconic partnership with Rolex).
The Swiss Open, which takes place in the center of enchanting mountain town Gstaad, is a visual treat: when the sun is out, the juxtaposition of red clay, blue sky, green mountain terrain, and sumptuous castle-like edifices along with typical Swiss chalet-style buildings looks like it comes straight out of a fairy tale written for tennis lovers.
And if you happen to be a watch lover you are going to like this event even more: as Zenith is one of the sponsors of the tournament, there is an onsite boutique where visitors can try on, talk about, and even purchase Zenith watches. Twin slices of heaven!
But why would the brand take on the partnership of a local event that is too small to even generate much in the way of television outside Switzerland? The answer here is two-fold and clever: the first is the obvious access to the type of clientele that attends such an event. In Europe, people interested in tennis generally have some money as the sport is not inexpensive to play, nor is it cheap to watch live.
In other words, it’s not a sport for everyone like it is, say, in the United States, where public courts make it inexpensive and widely available.
The second reason is surely that Zenith CEO Julien Tornare is a huge tennis fan and therefore understands the sport and the kind of people who enjoy it. I spent a lovely day talking tennis with him as we watched the semifinals (when I could tear my eyes away from the view, that is).
The Gstaad tournament is one of the most visually arresting tournaments I have ever visited. But you don’t have to take my word for that; even ATP supervisor Carlos Sanches confided to me that the Swiss Open could be his favorite tournament on the schedule.
Zenith’s LVMH sibling TAG Heuer is also engaging more in tennis after releasing Maria Sharapova from its bevy of ambassadors in November 2016 following the doping scandal that forced her to take a one-year break from tennis.
TAG Heuer’s four new ambassadors are all young, dynamic, and from the English-speaking world: 19-year-old Canadian Felix Auger Aliassime, 21-year-old American Frances Tiafoe, 20-year-old Australian Alex de Minaur, and 20-year-old Canadian Denis Shapovalov, the latter having already joined the team of TAG Heuer ambassadors in 2017. “TAG Heuer has been so helpful and has supported me from a young age when I started shooting up the rankings. The brand has so many amazing ambassadors and I’m proud to be part of the family,” Shapalov recently stated in a press release.
By selecting promising players whose professional careers have only just begun, TAG Heuer explains that it would like to focus on supporting and drawing attention to the next generation of talent. And TAG Heuer is not only supporting individual players but has also chosen to partner with the Italian Tennis Federation as its official watch provider and official timekeeper of the Next Gen ATP Finals, the season-ending 21-and-under event showcasing the future stars of the ATP World Tour.
A warm welcome back to Ebel in tennis
“I’ve heard [former tennis professional, now Eurosport commentator] Mats Wilander saying in commentary that he didn’t know how Rafael Nadal could wear a timepiece on court. But, funny enough, I remember quite well Wilander himself playing Grand Slam finals with a watch on back in 1987, some cheap plastic brand, I never really knew which one it was. And this was not an isolated case: I also remember Boris Becker winning Wimbledon wearing an Ebel and Andre Agassi [now a Longines ambassador] in his denim shorts days circa 1988 playing with an Ebel that featured a blue-jean strap with red hearts!”
“Back then, in the 1980s and through to the mid-1990s, Ebel was huge, right up there with Rolex in terms of visibility, sponsoring players and events such as the Davis Cup. There were a lot of smaller tennis events associated with more or less relevant watch brands, and the deals made were mainly due to local retailers (off the top of my head I can recall Korloff in Lyon) instead of a global marketing strategy like the one Rolex has right now.”
This is a quote by noted tennis-and-timepiece journalist Miguel Seabra that I included in Tennis And Timepieces 2018: Marketing Match Made In Heaven Or ‘You Cannot Be Serious!’? An Expert Weighs In.
That story with Seabra’s fun quote was timely, though we did not know it at the time: Ebel is currently in the midst of a comeback both to the watch world and the tennis world. And to underscore that, the historical brand founded in 1911 sponsored the Ladies Open Lausanne in July 2019, which takes place at the Tennis Club Stade-Lausanne, a club founded in 1920.
Who else is wearing what?
Simona Halep, Wimbledon’s 2019 women’s champion, has been under contract to Hublot since 2016. Other Hublot tennis ambassadors include Elina Svitolina (who previously partnered with Ulysse Nardin), Karolina Pliskova, and Borna Ćorić. Svitolina and Pliskova are top-ten players, while Ćorić, an Hublot ambassador since 2015, is currently ranked at number 15.
Novak Djokovic, Wimbledon’s 2019 men’s champion, has been under contract to Seiko since 2014 when he switched allegiance from Audemars Piguet to the Japanese giant. He is currently wearing the Seiko Astron GPS Solar SSH003.
Speaking of Japanese giants, Naomi Osaka has been a brand ambassador for Citizen since 2018. At Wimbledon 2019 she debuted her fourth different Eco-Drive Bluetooth model on court since signing on. Modern, unisex, and in the hot blue tone trendy in watches right now, this lightweight, hardened titanium watch measuring 40.5 x 10.7 mm is a great fit for the agile sport and the young Japanese-Haitian supertalent.
While this watch is not luxurious by our standards, it fits the 21-year-old’s personality perfectly, and I’ll bet it is easy to wear on court.
Rolex undisputedly wears the tennis crown
“Of course, Rolex became the biggest reference in the world of sports sponsoring, and particularly in tennis, this year celebrating the 40th anniversary of its deal with Wimbledon arranged via IMG (International Management Group), who took over the business side of the Championships and followed up in tennis the strategy they already used in golf,” Seabra pointed out last year during the fortieth-anniversary year of Wimbledon and Rolex.
Rolex, who has spent the last two years amassing a Monopoly board of important tournaments to sponsor, is the official timekeeper of the majority of important tennis tournaments in the world: from the lower ATP World Tour 250 echelon in Estoril and Geneva right up to the Masters 1000 events, the ATP and WTA year-end championships, Davis Cup, Fed Cup, and now all four Grand Slams.
In 2018, Rolex announced a brand-new multiyear partnership with the United States Tennis Association, which includes sponsorship of the Cincinnati Masters Tournament (completing a sponsorship monopoly of all nine of Masters events), the USTA National Campus in Orlando, supporting the USTA Foundation (the organization’s charitable arm), and becoming the official timekeeper and the official timepiece of the U.S. Open.
“Having such a relevant director who was a good tennis player like Arnaud Boetsch (former number 13 in the world rankings and a Davis Cup hero clinching the 1996 trophy for France in epic fashion) certainly helped Rolex become one of the biggest sponsors in the game, if not the biggest due to its widespread influence in the calendar and across all continents,” Seabra commented.
“And there’s never been another ambassador like Roger Federer, who is not only Swiss but embodies a lot of what this ‘crowned’ brand stands for. In the late 1970s or early 1980s I don’t recall the biggest stars – other than Aussie great John Newcombe for Rolex, if memory serves – being high-profile ambassadors for watch brands. Bjorn Borg had more sponsor deals than a Formula 1 team, but was not clearly associated to a watch brand, even though in recent years Rolex has added him to its ever-growing stable of greats.”
In fact, Rolex has managed to sign almost every living historical player as well as a plethora of current champions and up-and-comers – so numerous it is now almost impossible to recount them all.
Rolex wears the crown in tennis. Still. Undisputedly.