Stanislas Wawrinka became the latest high-profile tennis player to invest in a luxury Swiss watch brand when he was named as a minority shareholder in the family-owned company Norqain last month. News of the investment — the terms of which were undisclosed — was accompanied by the introduction of two tennis-themed mechanical watches costing £4,550.

The three-time Grand Slam winner is not the first high-ranking tennis player to sink some of his fortune into one of the new generation of high-end watch companies. Over the past 12 months, current world top-10 players Grigor Dimitrov and Casper Ruud have invested in Bianchet and Fleming respectively. Norqain was founded in 2018, Bianchet in 2017, and Fleming released its first watch in March this year. None has disclosed any details of the investments.

For Ben Küffer, Norqain’s co-founder and chief executive, the trend signals a shift in how brands work with sports stars. “The time of having an ambassador on a poster showing a watch is over,” says the 36-year-old, who was approached directly by Wawrinka last year. “We need to write stories for our fans that are credible.” Norqain’s other co-founder is former NHL ice-hockey star Mark Streit who, like Wawrinka, is also Swiss.

According to Küffer, ambassador investment brings that credibility, as does the performance profile of Wawrinka’s watches, which he says are designed to be worn on court. “They’re made for the battle itself, not just for after the victory,” he says, noting the Wild One Skeleton Coral and Gecko models are tested for shock-resistance to 5,000G. Former world number one Rafael Nadal’s long-standing partnership with hyperwatch maker Richard Mille is based on the same principle.

This contrasts with the wearing of sponsors’ watches only for trophy ceremonies. For example, Andy Murray was famously caught on camera after his US Open win telling his team he couldn’t find his Rado watch. Similarly, last year’s Wimbledon champion, Carlos Alcaraz, slipped on a gold Rolex Daytona before posing with the trophy.

For smaller brands, much of the appeal of working with tennis players is the year-round global schedule. “Tennis players have a unique opportunity to help open new markets for younger, up-and-coming brands in new territories,” says Merrick Haydon, executive vice-president of the UK arm of the sports marketing agency rEvolution.

Norqain’s Wild One Skeleton watch
Norqain’s Wild One Skeleton watch © Norqain

Küffer confirms this. “Stan will help us grow our business in Asia, where our network is less established,” he says.

Rodolfo Festa Bianchet, founder and chief executive of Bianchet, says Dimitrov has taken a “substantial minority stake” in his business. “The fact that Grigor is personally representing Bianchet has significantly increased Bianchet’s brand recognition,” he says.

For the players, investment provides an opportunity to be more involved. “I didn’t just want to be an ambassador,” says Wawrinka, who at 39 is in the twilight of his career. “I wanted to define the brand and to open some doors for when I stop playing tennis.” Küffer admits that, since announcing Wawrinka’s investment, he’s had “many” approaches from other professional tennis players.

But the rub-off is not limited to tennis. Hollywood actor Mark Wahlberg contacted Wawrinka on Instagram after he posted a picture of Norqain’s brightly coloured Wild One Skeleton Turquoise and, in February, was seen wearing the watch on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. “I’m not sure he would have done that if Stan had only been an ambassador,” says Küffer.

Haydon says the link between tennis stars and small, independent watchmakers is a natural consequence of how the players work.

“Tennis players operate in incredibly tight-knit teams and place huge importance on surrounding themselves with the right people and building the right environment of trusted characters with a shared vision,” he says. “There are parallels between the make-up of these teams and the family-owned businesses of the watch industry. Rather than simply seeking to enhance their image and earnings alone, it could be these shared values that explain their interest.”

Andy Murray smiling as he holds aloft a trophy along with a watch on his left wrist
Andy Murray wore a Rado in the final of Wimbledon in 2013 © Julian Finney/Getty Images
Carlos Alcaraz wore his gold Rolex Daytona upon winning Wimbledon in 2023 © Julian Finney/Getty Images

Stepping on to the field of play is nothing new for Swiss watchmakers, who read the sports marketing playbook decades ago. Rolex entered golf and Tag Heuer Formula 1 in the late 1960s. Today, sport is awash with watch companies: this summer, Hublot will sponsor the Uefa European Football Championship in June, before Omega times the Olympics the following month.

But, because tennis is an individual sport and players often wear watches while they play, it offers smaller brands less expensive but powerful opportunities to raise their profiles.

Gerald Charles, another young family-owned watch company, lists top-10-ranked Hubert Hurkacz among its “friends of the brand” and, like Norqain, has produced colourful versions of watches inspired by tennis’s grass and clay court seasons.

All will be hoping their tennis associations transform their sales, but some are not sure how much impact a tennis player outside the so-called “Big Three” of Roger Federer (Rolex), Nadal and Novak Djokovic (Hublot) can have. “No normal person has ever heard of Norqain, so it’s terrific exposure,” argues Johnny Davis, creator and editor of Esquire’s weekly watch newsletter About Time. “But can Stan Wawrinka make a brand like Norqain cool? I’m not sure if he can do that.”

Wawrinka, not surprisingly, is more confident. “Ben and I have the same mentality,” he says. “We’re going to get bigger and better. It’s the same mentality I have in my sport.”

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