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Rafael Nadal 3.0: Refreshed Knees, Remodeled Game

Rafa Silences Opposition and Critics

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COMMENTARY | Due south of Barcelona and rising from the blue water of the Mediterranean is the small island of Mallorca. A place that has risen in notoriety at nearly the same pace as its home-grown tennis star, Rafael Nadal.

It was in his hometown town of Manacor, Mallorca, that Rafa first launched his young tennis career under the supervision and guidance of Antonio Nadal Homar (a.k.a Toni Nadal), Rafa's uncle on his father's side.

Nadal's tendency of returning to Mallorca to rehabilitate his world-famous patellas is becoming almost as routine and deliberate as his well-known rituals and habits on the court of play.

It was to Indian Wells, Calif., that the Nadal team recently took the player's comeback tour to unveil their latest creation, Rafa 3.0. Against Juan Martin del Potro in the final, Rafa 3.0 was equipped with a bigger backhand as well as a noticeable interest in finishing points more quickly than in the past.

These upgrades were visible in the depth Nadal was achieving off his backhand wing as well as the way he seemed to lean into his forehand to create the most devastating force possible. It regularly looked as if Nadal was maxing out the full range of his power.

The collision of Rafa 3.0 and a full-functioning Delpo created the perfect conditions for power tennis within the stadium at Indian Wells. By the end, though, it was the new and improved Spaniard who was left standing. With considerable emotion, Nadal slid to the court in celebration of his first hard court title since October of 2010.

In many ways, the Rafa 3.0 that was put on display at Indian Wells was reminiscent of a previous comeback in which Nadal emerged with slight adjustments to his game. And, again, these changes appeared to build on his already substantial game, not alter it.

Rafa 2.0: Improved Serve

Like a mad scientist in a laboratory, uncle Toni has always approached the Nadal game as an ever improving experiment.

It was Toni Nadal that first convinced a young Rafa to use his non-writing hand to hold a racket and hit a forehand. It was also uncle Toni that had installed the tools, discipline and tactics necessary for his nephew to consistently beat one of the greatest players in the history of the game.

If Roger Federer was the only player on tour then Toni Nadal's work might have been complete years ago. However, the rise of the other two that comprise the Big Four, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, dictated further changes.

When uncle Toni descended into his laboratory in 2009, he emerged with a plan for Rafa to improve his serve. The rise of players such as Djokovic and Murray who excelled in the field of service returns made the original Rafa's serve at times unbearably vulnerable. It was uncle Toni's coaching that brought Rafa's service motion and approach to a new plane.

Armed with an improved serve, Rafa 2.0 proceeded to make history during his return to the game. Winning the 2010 editions of Wimbledon, the French Open and U.S. Open, Nadal became the first male player ever to win on three different Slam surfaces in the same calendar year.

Looking at serving statistics from both before and after his comeback in 2009 reveals just how much the Nadal serve improved. In 2009, before Nadal left the tour for medical reasons, he beat Federer in the final of the Australian Open with a first-serve percentage of only 64 percent. When he played and won the 2010 Wimbledon final against Tomas Berdych, Nadal improved that same statistic to 69 percent.

In the 2011 Wimbledon final against Novak Djokovic, Nadal's first-serve percentage was a stratospheric 78 percent -- and it was a losing effort! There certainly had to be other issues at work if a player with Nadal's resume was serving at 78 percent and coming out on the losing end.

Against Djokovic, it was the Nadal backhand that appeared unable to meet the level demanded by the Serbian player's talent. Nadal was constantly on the defensive against Djokovic, with his backhand shots falling shorter and shorter in the court as points progressed. The same strategy Nadal used to employ against his opponents, was now being used successfully on him.

The result was seven consecutive defeats in finals of tournaments by Rafa 2.0 at the hands of Nole. It took all Nadal had to successfully defend his turf on the clay courts of Europe in 2012. Although the costs from this effort were grave, knocking Nadal from the tour and once again back to Mallorca for rehabilitation.

Rafa 3.0: Improved Backhand and Other Tactics

While the doctors once again tended to his nephew, uncle Toni returned to his lab to cook up his latest upgrades. Building up from the foundation of fresh knees, the strategy focused on improving Rafa's backhand.

This was evident as Rafa 3.0 made his way through continually stiffer opposition at Indian Wells. Before his loss last year at Wimbledon, Nadal's backhand shots often fell close to the service line. At Indian Wells, they were reaching and sometimes kissing the baseline.

Additionally, Nadal appeared to be moving in and attacking his opponents rather than sitting passively behind his own baseline. A tactic that essentially shifted the rectangle on which he was playing forward, and consequently moved Nadal into the more aggressive position.

Another new tactic in the Rafa 3.0 arsenal was as noticeable as the white tape adorning his knee. Nadal was also looking to shorten points, most likely in an effort to increase the longevity of his body.

This was particularly noticeable on the Rafa forehand side, where he was almost hitting the cover right off the ball. After Nadal set up a point to his liking, he followed up with more than just the next chess move. He struck for both "check" and "mate" with one fell swoop.

Down a set and a break against Juan Martin in the final, Nadal seized the ensuing game and effectively the match with crushing forehand winners that made one wonder if the Spaniard could hit the ball any harder.

The end result was a shock to both del Potro, who had seemingly attained the more advantageous position, and any doubters of Nadal during his absence. He had gotten the maximum result not only against the Big Four, but on their preferred surface. According to ASAP Sports, Nadal said, "Very important victory for me, winning, like I say before, against the best players of the world on a surface that is good for them."

The only question that remains is whether the improved backhand and new aggressive tactics of Rafa 3.0 will result in victory against the fortress otherwise known as Novak Djokovic.

Based on recent evidence, the process of finding out may upgrade the Djokovic-Nadal rivalry to new heights, possibly matching (or exceeding) the acclaimed Federer-Nadal rivalry.

Andrew Prochnow is a derivatives trader by day and a tennis buff by night. He is a frequent contributor at the Bleacher Report.

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