Call him “Rafa.” Mr. Nadal is the only title the world number three doesn’t want to add to his list. Watches, on the other hand, he loves to add to his ever-expanding collection. In October, we sat down with Rafael Nadal in Nice, France, during a promotional golf tournament organized by Swiss luxury watchmaker Richard Mille.
Nadal has just completed 18 holes, a warm-up compared to what’s coming up next. His coach has propped a set of tennis rackets against the wall ahead of this evening’s training session. But for a moment, Nadal can relax, and indulge in one of his more unexpected passions: the world of watches.
Rafa looks relaxed. He’s wearing a pair of faded jeans and a red crew neck t-shirt that matches his custom Nike sneakers. But he means business. He hasn’t even sat down when he flashes his trademark grin. He’s ready to go.
This is one watch ambassador who knows his stuff. Rafael Nadal and Richard Mille have been inseparable since their first meeting in 2007. He is “family,” according to Nadal, who’s raring to talk about the man who made his watch.
“I didn’t want to wear a watch at first,” he admits. When Richard Mille approached him to be his ambassador, he turned him down, saying it would be impossible to play with a watch. “I’m always swinging my wrist, and it will bother me.”
Like many tennis players, the Spanish champion has a complex set of rituals that have been integrated into his routine. “You know, the bottles have to been in line, the shorts must be readjusted,” says a smiling Richard Mille. “They aren’t simple, athletes.”
This wasn’t the first time one of them had turned Richard Mille down. Michael Schumacher had done the same before, which had opened the door for the now-infamous Felipe Massa partnership.
But Mr. Mille was determined to have Nadal on his side of the court. He returned to Switzerland, emboldened by their meeting, and told his team they needed to create a watch that weighed less than 20g, strap included. “Boss, you need a holiday,” responded Julien Boillat, the brand’s technical director.
But after a two-year “battle,” Richard Mille flew to Palma de Mallorca to meet with Nadal once more. The pair had stayed close during the development of the first watch, and Nadal’s curiosity had only grown over time, giving way to impatience.
Rafa made sure he was on the tarmac to welcome “Ricardo” as soon as he landed.
“Show me the reloj,” Nadal told Mr. Mille, excited to see the first prototype. This time, it was his turn to decline. “He was boiling,” remembers the CEO. Nadal would have to wait a couple of hours, until they could sit down quietly.
“Let me show you the watch that I want you to use,” said Mr. Mille handing him Jean Totd’s personal RM 12, a hefty platinum watch, to see if he could fool Nadal. “Ricardo, I can’t wear this, it’s too heavy,” said the victim of the joke.
“You are losing your muscle; you are becoming weak,” laughed Mr. Mille, before reaching into his jacket once more to reveal the truth: the RM o27 Tourbillon Rafael Nadal.
“Cabron, this is the real watch!” Rafa’s eyes widened, and according to Mr. Mille, you could even see them glaze over. “He had made another one, and it was incredible,” said Nadal.
Right away, the RM o27 goes on Nadal’s wrist, and becomes part of the training regimen. A few parts break, “which I was sure was going to happen,” reveals Mr. Mille. “I want to do extreme pieces for extreme conditions,” and you cannot have more extreme conditions than working with Nadal.
Because of that, Richard Mille believes the brand has developed a deeper knowledge during its 13-year existence, than brands with several centuries behind them.
The final product is ready just in time for the biggest season of Nadal’s career. “I started wearing it in 2010, and right after I won Roland Garros, Wimbledon and then the US Open, so it was just an unforgettable moment for me.”
Has it become a good luck charm? He smiles. It was “magic,” he admits.
Richard Mille tempts the superstitious when he confiscates the winning watch in Australia the next year. After a heavy fall during the US Open, Rafa had scratched up the watch “beyond repair,” says Mr. Mille. Perhaps the watch sat a little too comfortably on Nadal’s wrist.
“Seriously, I forget about it,” says Nadal, talking about the watch. It never gets in the way, whether he is playing tennis, playing golf, or reading. “It’s so light, and so comfortable on the wrist.”
Nadal wouldn’t make the final of the Australia Open, and hasn’t lifted the title there since winning the tournament back in 2009. As for the damaged watch, it now sits proudly on Mr. Mille’s wrist. But Nadal has since made up for his Australian misfortunes with five Grand Slam wins.
“He’s an unbelievable person,” says Nadal of Mr. Mille. “What he did in his world of watches is really unbelievable, in such a short amount of time. For me Richard is like a friend.”
In the summer of 2012, the bond is strengthened when Richard Mille crashes in Italy during a race on the same weekend of the Roland Garros final. “I had a suspension problem, and I drove into the wall very strongly.” While focusing on a rare Monday final, a worried Nadal sent more than 20 text messages to his friend “Ricardo.”
Richard Mille and Rafael Nadal have since known great success individually and as a team, and the first RM 027 has been given a new design, with Rafa’s input.
A new Velcro® strap has been added, at his request, because the buckle would sometimes cut into his wrist.
And this year, the brand introduced a new Rafael Nadal watch, the “Baby Nadal,” at a more affordable price point.
But Rafa doesn’t have a favorite. That would be like picking a favorite title. Instead, he chooses his watches based on his mood and style. Does he keep it as long as he’s winning, I ask? “Seriously, it depends on the moment.”
In between tournaments is when he gets to have the most fun however. He keeps his collection close. “I wear two watches when I’m traveling. I don’t want to lose a watch,” he jokes.
His current tournament watch is the RM 27-01. Nadal has been wearing it on and off the court since 2013, and says it’s just “unbelievably comfortable.”
It’s no surprise that Nadal feels at ease wearing the RM 27-01 considering that the ultra-light carbon composite watch weighs in at just 19 g, Velcro® strap included.
Nadal though, isn’t as complicated. “Me? No. Richard Mille watches are very sophisticated, and very complicated. But I’m not complicated,” says Nadal.
The only complication he’s known has been the injuries during his career. Two years ago, he was stopped nearly 9 months, technically allowing Richard Mille to scrap their contract, but there was simply no way Richard would do that.
This year hasn’t been easy for the athlete either, and he doesn’t hide from the fact.
Nadal doesn’t seem defeated by it though. “The year in general has been very positive,” he says. “The first six months were very positive.” They include a berth at the Australian Open final, and wins in Rio and Doha, before clinching a record ninth Roland Garros title.
“What happened, happened.” It’s that simple for Nadal, and he doesn’t hold any grudges against his body. “The second part of the year was so difficult. That’s part of life, that’s part of sport, and it’s only happened to me a few times in my career.”
Instead Nadal says he’s working “extra hard,” and is motivated to get back to the top. And that means taking it day-by-day.
“I never thought I’d be in the situation today, having won every thing that I’ve won.” But everyone wants to win, he adds. That’s something all professional tennis players of his level share.
“Seriously for me, the most important thing is to be happy, compete well, and give myself the chance to be competitive against any opponent, and I know if I create opportunities, I will win a few titles.”
Nadal glances over at his manager, Carlos Costa. It’s time to put those Nike sneakers to the test.