Richard Mille RM 27–02 For Rafael Nadal: The Quintessential Sports Tourbillon (Archive)

by Elizabeth Doerr

 The quintessential sports tourbillon, the Richard Mille RM 027 RN, officially debuted at the 2010 French Open (now simply called Roland Garros) on the wrist of that year’s champion, Rafael Nadal.

Because of the high stresses and shocks the player’s arms and wrists experience in tennis, until Richard Mille signed Nadal as an ambassador, watch brand sponsorships generally involved the tennis 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.

Richard Mille (left) and Rafael Nadal at the Paris press conference announcing the RM 27-02

Richard Mille (left) and Rafael Nadal at the Paris press conference announcing the RM 27–02 (both men are wearing it)

Richard Mille’s RM 027 was specifically created to stand up to the punishment of the tennis court, especially Nadal’s punishing game. With thousands of hours of research and development invested into it, it is designed to be as light as possible so as not to interfere with the player.

Nadal and Richard Mille’s technical team tested seven prototypes on court for more than half a year before Nadal officially debuted it at the 2010 French Open — which Nadal won after coming back from a serious injury while wearing the obvious black timepiece measuring 48 x 39.7 x 11.85 mm on his right wrist (he’s left-handed).

Just one month later, he triumphed at the year’s third Grand Slam tournament, Wimbledon, wearing his jet-black good luck charm displayed even more obviously against the all-white sports clothing the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club dictates players must wear during the tournament.

Then in September he took home the trophy of a third Grand Slam event: the U.S. Open.

“Nadal can well be said to be a human test bench for this wristwatch,” Mille said at the time.

Rafael Nadal playing with his Richard Mille RM 27-02 RN

Rafael Nadal playing with his brand-new Richard Mille RM 27–02 RN (photo courtesy Stefano Galuzzi / Richard Mille)

Five years and several more Nadal editions later, including the RM 035 — the “baby Nadal” without tourbillon — Richard Mille debuts the latest installment of this notorious wristwatch at the 2015 edition of Roland Garros: the RM 27–02.

This watch measures 47.77 x 39.7 x 12.25 mm; the case is so perfectly proportioned that Nadal says he hardly knows it’s there. The reason is its extreme lightness: the movement weighs in at just 3.35 grams, possible only because of the incredible high-tech materials that it is made of.

And this incredibly lightweight wristwatch was only made possible thanks to the real-life testing ground of the professional ATP tour: repeated shock, sweat, extreme temperature changes, and the various altitudes and humidities associated with being in a different part of the world each week.

“We did not create a specific tool or machine to test this,” Mille also said back in 2010. Like another of Mille’s star ambassadors, Formula 1 racecar driver Felipe Massa, Nadal has been an integral part of the research process as he and his team continue to provide Richard Mille with feedback and information.

Richard Mille RM 27-02 RN for Rafael Nadal

Richard Mille RM 27–02 RN for Rafael Nadal

Think-tank Audemars Piguet Renaud & Papi has also been an integral part of Mille’s development and production, and CEO Fabrice Deschanel explained back in 2010 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 200 Gs in your watch. Deschanel explained that Nadal’s serve alone measures between 800 and 1,000 Gs; Mille certified the RM 027 RN up to 800 Gs.

Luckily, the southpaw champion wears his Richard Mille tourbillon on the right wrist; unluckily, 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. Thus, the entire movement rests on a series of shock absorbers.

During the testing phase in 2010, Nadal broke at least six of the original watches, though it was elements other than the movement that didn’t immediately measure up. In particular, the hole in the carbon fiber case for the crown tube and winding stem seems to have created a bit of a problem at the beginning, and given that Nadal uses his watch like the instrument it should be — meaning he plays, showers, and even takes saunas with it on — this weakness produced condensation under the crystal.

Back of the Richard Mille RM 27-02

The back of the Richard Mille RM 27–02 for Rafael Nadal

The APRP team ended up deciding to make the tube out of titanium for added strength. The hands, crown, crystal, and other elements also fell off the test watches at various times. But the movement was never harmed, and both Mille and Nadal claimed it kept highly accurate time despite the punishment it was constantly subjected to.

The RM 27–02 is now certified to withstand 5,000 Gs, though Nadal confirmed with a smile he would hardly need that on court.

G forces

There is hardly another professional tennis player who wears a watch while playing on court, though this may soon be changing due to the lucrativeness of ambassador sponsorships.

For most, the watch tends to be a bit 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 hand if the player has a two-handed backhand or moves the arm very freely.

wristshot: Richard Mille RM 27-02 RN on the wrist of Rafael Nadal

Richard Mille RM 27–02 RN on the wrist of Rafael Nadal

Nadal originally agreed to wear his Richard Mille watch during competitive play mainly because compared to a “normal” watch, the RM 027 RN weighs next to nothing: 18 grams with rubber strap.

“It’s so ergonomic and comfortable that he doesn’t feel anything,” Mille explains. And now, after five years of playing with that watch on his wrist, at a press conference in Paris as the 2015 edition of Roland Garros was getting underway, the nine-time French Open champion claimed to feel like he’s missing something if he’s not wearing his watch.

Naturally, if the watch is a mechanical one, there is damage to the movement — in particular 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 4 to 8 milliseconds (thousandths of seconds). One to two milliseconds later, a shock wave created by the collision reaches the hand.

Additionally, skilled players increase grip force just prior to impact, which can augment the force by about 32 kilograms/70 pounds. The impact of the ball on the racquet face creates large impulsive forces and smaller vibration forces on the hand.

The late Vic Braden, perhaps the world’s most celebrated tennis teacher — and certainly the most scientific of them — took time out to talk to me about that the precise amount of G forces the arm is subjected to a few years ago. He said that they cannot be precisely measured. “Due to the differences in the human arm, ligaments and tendons accept oscillations differently,” he said 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.”

Richard Mille RM 27-02 RN for Rafael Nadal

Richard Mille RM 27–02 RN for Rafael Nadal

Braden explained to me that he had 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 said at the time, “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.”

Braden’s scientific expression of Nadal’s style of aggressive baseline play was more colorfully expressed by Mille five years ago. “He’s a warrior. I’m sure the way he plays will put my watches in danger.”

An interesting anecdote shows how exciting this prospect was for Mille: upon winning the 2010 U.S. Open, Nadal slightly scraped the case of the RM 027 when he fell to the ground of the hard court. Mille asked for the watch back so he could change out the bezel, thereby restoring a pristine look, but instead kept the watch as a souvenir and gave Nadal a new one. “He always wears it,” Nadal laughingly confirmed.

Rafael Nadal looking relaxed at the press conference announcing the Richard Mille RM 27-02

Rafael Nadal looking uncharacteristically relaxed at the press conference announcing the Richard Mille RM 27–02

High-tech materials

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

Some of these same materials are also now found in wristwatches — and that is thanks in great part to Richard Mille’s pioneering work. The RM 027 RN itself boasted materials new to the watchmaking industry such as LITAL, an alloy of aluminum, lithium, copper, magnesium and zirconium.

The RM 27–02 takes this further in order to attain its light weight and sturdy construction. First off, the base plate is machined from NTPT carbon fiber, a material comprising several layers of filaments obtained by separating the carbon threads, and TPT quartz, a new material designed and developed by Richard Mille in partnership with North Thin Ply Technology (NTPT) comprising hundreds of layers of quartz filaments piled on top of each other. The fibers, characterized by extreme strength, are very resistant to high temperatures. About 45 microns thick on the high end, layers of TPT are inserted between layers of NTPT carbon by an automatic positioning system that modifies the orientation of the fibers between each layer by 45 degrees. Heated to 120°C in an autoclave similar to those used to make aeronautical components and subjected to pressure equal to six bars, the material is then ready for machining. During this phase, the various layers of TPT quartz and NTPT carbon are revealed at random, ensuring that each machined component is unique, despite being machined using the same process.

“We are very happy with this material because it is very resistant,” Mille explained in Paris. “Of course we have had carbon fibers before, but this is much better.”

Rafael Nadal's energetic style of tennis is the ultimate test for the Richard Mille RM 27-02 RN

Rafael Nadal’s energetic style of tennis is the ultimate test for the Richard Mille RM 27–02 RN (photo courtesy Stefano Galuzzi/Richard Mille)

The bezel, case back, and base plate are all crafted in this material. The former two elements are attached to the base plate using 12 titanium spline screws.

For the first time in Richard Mille’s history, the case band has been more or less deleted from the equation: the bezel and case back are assembled directly onto the movement’s base plate. The case is finished when the sapphire crystal is added (note: the first RM 027 RN did not have a sapphire crystal, but rather a Plexiglas example, which is lighter). The technique helps keep the watch thickness down to its svelte height of 12.25 mm despite the sapphire crystal.

The TPT quartz technology took a number of years to introduce in a watch because of the experimentation needed to stabilize the color (note the funky “distressed” look of the case). This was achieved using ultra-violet rays.

On a Richard Mille wristwatch the concept defines the components; the components never define the watch. There are virtually no standard watch components found here.

Modern finish

“On this watch we gave a lot of attention to the finishes,” Mille explained the modern horological visuals. “The movement you see here is a pure marvel; it’s a step forward in terms of watchmaking expertise, even though it has a lot of shock resistance. We gave a lot of attention to the beauty of the finish because we are top watchmakers, and for us it is very important to do this.”

Mille’s main reason for so much research in guaranteeing reliability of the RM 027 line lies in something that no other manufacturer has dared to do before or after the introduction of this watch: the RM 027 RN and RM 27–02 RN contain tourbillon escapements, the most sensitive type in common use today. Despite extreme shock protection, this assembly will always remain more prone to shock than one beating within a sturdy workhorse movement. “We are not afraid to ‘go to the battlefield’,” Mille explained.

To help maintain reliability, the tourbillon is generously sized: it is a robust 12.3 mm in diameter with a ten-millimeter Glucydur balance wheel. It oscillates at a frequency of 3 Hz (21,600 vph).

Richard Mille RM 27-02 RN in its natural habitat: on Rafael Nadal's wrist

Richard Mille RM 27–02 RN in its natural habitat: on Rafael Nadal’s wrist (photo courtesy Stefano Galuzzi/Richard Mille)

This white timepiece, which can be worn with a choice of three eye-catching straps (orange, red, or black) — Nadal loves color — is as impressive as Rafael Nadal’s own presence on the tennis court. Which is a good thing since one of the first things Nadal explained during the watch’s introduction on the eve of the first day of play at Roland Garros 2015 was that his watch, “now feels like a second skin.”

Simultaneously to the watch, Nadal introduced his charitable foundation to the public, whose missions is to aid socially discriminated children. Richard Mille is also an official partner to this foundation. To find out how you too can make a difference, please visit RafaNadal Foundation.

For more information on the watch, please see www.richardmille.com/watch/rm-027-tourbillon-rafael-nadal.

Quick Facts Tourbillon RM 27–02 Rafael Nadal
 Case: 47.77 x 39.7 x 12.25 mm, NTPT carbon and TPT quartz, a material co-developed by Richard Mille and North Thin Ply Technology; bezel and case back assembled directly onto the NTPT base plate; water-resistant to 50 m; sapphire crystal on front
 Movement: manually wound caliber with one-minute tourbillon weighing 3.35 g; 70 hours power reserve; certified to withstand 5,000 Gs
 Functions: hours, minutes
 Limitation: 50 pieces
 Price: € 777,000 / 734,500 Swiss francs

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* This article was first published on June 25, 2015 at Richard Mille RM 27–02 For Rafael Nadal: The Quintessential Sports Tourbillon.

Originally published at Quill & Pad.