January 13 2011
Excellence, elegance, style and prestige – these were the four words that Hans Wilsdorf, co-founder of Rolex, was determined would forever be associated with his watches. They also sum up rather neatly the attributes of Roger Federer, who is one of the small but select group of sporting figures sponsored by the Swiss firm.
Wilsdorf was an early pioneer of product testing, not only with top sporting personalities but with ground-breaking explorers, aviators and mountaineers too. His efforts began with Mercedes Gleitze, the first Englishwoman to swim the Channel in October 1927. A hoaxer subsequently claimed to have beaten her to it and, a fortnight later, Gleitze felt compelled to undertake a second “Vindication Swim” back to England. This time exhaustion got the better of her seven miles from shore but, as she sat in the recovery boat, a journalist noticed that she had a gold Rolex Oyster hanging around her neck on a ribbon. “The watch that defies the elements” had been given to her by Wilsdorf and was showing perfect time despite having spent almost 10.5 hours in the cold Channel waters.
In the decade that followed, Sir Malcolm Campbell wore a Rolex Oyster when he broke the land speed record in 1935, the test pilot Chuck Yeager was wearing one when he broke the sound barrier 12 years later, and both Sir Edmund Hillary and the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay wore a Rolex on the ascent of Everest in 1953. Stellar achievers one and all, but the association between the Geneva-based watchmaker and the Basel-born Federer seems particularly appropriate. Rolex is, after all, the official timekeeper both at Wimbledon and the Australian Open, while the 29-year-old “Fed Express” is widely regarded as the finest tennis player ever to wield a racket.
Not surprisingly, Federer is idolised in his home country and on a visit to the Rolex HQ last year he spent hours meeting staff and signing autographs. But as he prepares to defend his title at the 2011 Australian championships, which begin in Melbourne on January 17, some pundits are wondering if he is at the beginning of a period of gradual but irreversible decline. He looked as good as ever last winter, when his crushing straight-sets defeat of Andy Murray in the final enabled him to notch his Grand Slam total up to 16, two better than the previous record set by Pete Sampras. But in the three Majors that followed, Federer was rarely at his best. He lost in the quarters in Paris and at Wimbledon and then was outgunned by Novak Djokovic in a thrilling US Open semifinal.
Djokovic, Murray and, most potently of all, Rafa Nadal, may all be scenting blood as they gather down under. But the Swiss maestro has rallied of late, beating Nadal in the ATP World Tour Finals in London, and when the going gets really hot – and the on-court temperatures in Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena frequently reach 95°F – no one keeps his cool quite like Federer. Always immaculate, he doesn’t grunt or yell, and he doesn’t waste time and energy arguing with the umpire. Indeed, his ability to withstand the extreme conditions, which some players say have left them feeling “delusional”, is much like the resistance of a Rolex watch and, at 5-2 with Victor Chandler, I wouldn’t care to rule him out.