Mechanical watches and tennis don’t often go hand-in-hand — that is, until Richard Mille decided to do something about it with the RM 027 Tourbillon

 

At the ripe old age of 24, current world number one Rafael Nadal’s knees are a mess. Tendonitis and other injuries suffered as a result of the wear and tear tennis causes the body even had Nadal sidelined from the tennis court for several months in 2009.

But in early 2010, the Spaniard came roaring back to the court hungry for wins. And unbeknownst to most, he had also been performing tests on the practice court — not on his knees, but on a wristwatch.

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Rafael Nadal in action at the 2010 French Open with his RM 027 Tourbillon

Shock Therapy

The RM 027 Tourbillon by Richard Mille was specifically created to stand up to the tennis court, with thousands of hours of research and development invested into it. Nadal and Richard Mille’s technical team tested seven prototypes for more than half a year on court before Nadal officially debuted it at the 2010 French Open — which Nadal won while wearing the distinctive black timepiece on his right wrist. Just one month later, he triumphed at the year’s third Grand Slam tournament, Wimbledon, wearing his jet-black good-luck charm, which stood out all the more against the all-white sports clothing that Wimbledon dictates players must wear.

It is very rare for tennis players to wear a watch on court — Justine Henin being one exception, since her Rolex accompanies her in every match; while Roger Federer wears his Rolex in practice, but not during tournaments. For most players, a watch is a distraction, even if worn on the opposite wrist. There’s the weight of the timepiece, and the crown can poke the hand if the player has a two-handed backhand or moves the arm very freely. Nadal agreed to wear his Richard Mille watch during competitive play mainly because compared to a “normal” watch, the RM 027 Tourbillon weighs next to nothing: 18 grams with polycarbonate strap. “It’s so ergonomic and comfortable that he doesn’t feel anything,” Mille explains.

Extreme Testing

Indeed, the real testing ground for this groundbreaking wristwatch has been the conditions of playing the professional tour: repeated shock, sweat, extreme temperature changes, and the various altitudes and levels of humidity associated with being in a different part of the world each week. Like Mille’s previous star ambassador, Formula One racecar driver Felipe Massa, Nadal has been an integral part of the research process, and provided Mille and his team with feedback and information every step of the way.

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The RM 027 Tourbillon is designed to withstand up to 800G. Nadal claims the movement keeps accurate time despite the stresses it is subjected to on a daily basis.

Audemars Piguet Renaud & Papi is an integral part of Mille’s development and production, and CEO Fabrice Deschanel explains that they had Nadal wear sensors on his wrist during practice sessions in order to record force and movement. Deschanel cites repetition as being the biggest deterring factor, not the actual G-forces themselves. When you accidentally hit your wrist against a table, this already creates an energy wave of about 200G in your watch.

According to Deschanel, Nadal’s serve alone measures between 800 and 1,000G; Mille certifies the watch up to 800G. Luckily, Nadal wears his Richard Mille tourbillon on the right wrist; nevertheless, it is still subjected to the force of his two-handed backhand and the frequent spills he takes, thanks to his no-holds-barred style of play.

Vic Braden, perhaps the world’s most celebrated tennis teacher — and certainly the most scientific of them — explains that the precise amount of G-forces the arm is subjected to cannot be precisely measured. “Due to the differences in the human arm, ligaments and tendons accept oscillations differently,” he says before giving an example of what this means. “When we tested a new racquet, one person said it was the smoothest racquet he had ever used. Another person said it was the worst-feeling racquet he had ever used… the same racquet for both subjects.”

Braden explains that he has done several skeletal analyses of Nadal’s forehand, but could not acquire measurements of G-forces on his arm. “One thing is for certain,” he says, “Nadal’s arm speed on the forehand is much greater than nearly all [other] players. Because he hits the ball with more topspin, he does not depress the ball as much, but still achieves great speed because of his excessive arm speed.”

During the testing phase, Nadal broke at least six watches, though Mille is quick to point out that it was elements other than the movement that didn’t immediately measure up. In particular, the hole in the carbon-fibre case for the crown tube and winding stem created a bit of a problem at the beginning. Nadal wears his watch when he plays, showers and even in sauna. This produced condensation under the crystal. Thus, the APRP team decided to make the tube out of titanium for added strength. The hands, crown, crystal and other elements also fell off the test watches — but the movement was apparently never harmed, and both Mille and Nadal claim it keeps highly accurate time despite the punishment it is constantly subjected to.

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The unconventional use of titanium in the baseplate coupled with LITAL bridges makes the caliber RM027 an extremely lightweight tourbillon movement, at merely 3.83 grams.

Extreme Engineering

Naturally, if the watch is a mechanical one, there is damage to the movement — and particularly the balance and escapement — to consider as well. The intensity of the collision between the body, the racquet, and the ball is enormous. The impact — meaning the exact moment the ball hits the strings — is an event that lasts four to eight milliseconds. One to two milliseconds later, a shock wave created by the collision reaches the hand, dramatically increasing the forces. Additionally, skilled players increase grip force just prior to impact, which can augment the force by about 70 pounds.

The impact of the ball on the racquet face creates large impulsive forces and smaller vibration forces on the hand. Thus, the entire movement rests on a series of shock absorbers.

Mille’s main reason for so much research lies in the fact that the RM 027 is a tourbillon: despite extreme shock protection, this assembly will always remain more prone to shock than a sturdy ETA workhorse, which counts among the industry’s most shock-resistant calibres.

High-tech materials

The RM 027 Tourbillon boasts materials new to the watchmaking industry such as LITAL, an alloy of aluminium, lithium, copper, magnesium and zirconium. Virtually no standard watch parts are found in a Richard Mille watch, since here it is the concept that defines the components, not the components that define the watch.

Every one per cent of lithium added reduces density by three per cent while increasing stiffness by five per cent. The introduction of lithium to aluminium increases elastic modulus, fatigue life (very high resistance to fatigue crack growth) and cryogenic durability. The third generation space shuttles have fuel tanks that are made of aluminium lithium.

According to Braden, tennis racquets also borrow from aerospace industries. “The key factor in achieving ball speed is the stiffness of the racquet. Some NASA discoveries on how to make materials very stiff but light provided players with an opportunity to swing faster with less effort. This immediately changed the way the game was played and is the reason that players can now be aggressive from the baseline, which was nearly impossible in the 1950s and ’60s [with wooden racquets].”

Some of these materials are also now found in wristwatches — thanks in great part to Richard Mille’s pioneering work over the last decade. The RM 027 Tourbillon again offers new game-changing materials to the industry. With two Grand Slam wins and the current world No.1 partnering it, Mille’s tennis gambit has paid off brilliantly.

Richard Mille RM 027 tourbillon
Movement Caliber RM 027 manually wound tourbillon movement
Case 48mm × 39.70mm × 11.85mm (height); carbon composite
Strap Ultra-light, flexible polycarbonate
Price US$525,000

Excerpted from an article by Elizabeth Doerr, co-founder of Quill & Pad, in REVOLUTION’s archives.

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