Rafael Nadal kept his spirits up during a seven-month injury layoff with a little extra golf and fishing, but the pain of missing the London Olympics was slow to fade.
"The hardest was the first one, the Olympics," Nadal said of the prime tennis moments he was forced to forego as the pain and inflammation in his left knee kept him off the court.
After capturing his 11th Grand Slam title at Roland Garros last year, the Spaniard suffered a shock second-round exit at Wimbledon and didn't play again until last month.
The injury denied him the chance to defend the Olympic singles gold he had won in Beijing, and making it even harder was the fact that Nadal was to have carried the Spanish flag in the London opening ceremony.
"That was a sad moment for me," the 26-year-old Mallorcan said. "These opportunities are not forever, maybe only one time in life. I lost that opportunity."
But Nadal, who said he can only hope to get another Olympic opportunity at Rio in 2016, revealed that as his recovery dragged on he never worried he wouldn't return to the game at the highest level.
"I never thought about that," he said. "It's just, it was a long time, and it's hard when it's an injury that you don't know when you're going to come back.
"Sometimes it's frustrating, every day you test yourself and you don't feel you're improving."
Nadal, currently ranked fifth in the world, missed last year's US Open, then skipped the Australian Open in January after a virus further slowed his preparations.
However, he said he was more than encouraged by his three-tournament comeback tour in Latin America, where he finished runner-up in Vina del Mar, Chile, before lifting trophies in Sao Paulo and Acapulco.
Horacio Zeballos, ranked 73rd in the world and playing in just his second ATP Tour final, rallied to beat Nadal in three sets in Vina del Mar.
The Argentine became just the third player, along with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, to beat Nadal in a clay court final. But the former world number one said he was, in fact, delighted with that performance in his first tournament back.
"I don't consider myself that good that after seven months without competing and without practising a lot I will be back, I will be playing fantastic," Nadal said. "That doesn't exist for me.
"I played much much better than I thought, and in Acapulco I played a fantastic tournament," he added of his Latin American swing.
Last Saturday, Nadal dismantled David Ferrer 6-0, 6-2 to end his compatriot's three-year Acapulco reign and signal that Ferrer's current position as the top-ranked Spaniard -- one spot ahead of Nadal -- could be in jeopardy.
"In the final at Acapulco, forget about if I was seven months away from tennis, I played much, much better than in a lot of finals when I am competing at 100 percent.
"I played one of my best matches probably ever on clay in the final," Nadal said.
Nadal remained cautious, however, when it came to predicting whether that would translate into success on the hardcourts of Indian Wells, where the field for the first ATP Masters tournament of the year sees the "big four" of men's tennis -- Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Nadal -- all entered in the same event for the first time since Wimbledon.
Not only does the field include 49 of the top 50 men in the world, it will be Nadal's first hardcourt outing in almost a year -- since he withdrew from his scheduled semi-final against Murray at Miami last March with pain in that troublesome left knee.
"I'm not confident I'll be able to do it here, after one year not playing on hard," said Nadal, whose last career hardcourt title came in 2010 in Tokyo. "I'm going to try my best, but I don't expect anything."