NEW YORK -- A year ago, Stan Wawrinka sat in his doctor's office and prepared himself for the unkind news he knew was coming. He looked down at the medical images of his knee, when the doctor told him, bluntly, there's only one option.
Wawrinka's knee had been a problem all year, and it wasn't getting better. He tried to play through the pain but ultimately underwent two surgeries on his left knee, which left a hefty scar. "You should see what's inside," Wawrinka told ESPN.com jokingly before the start of the US Open.
The figurative scars were at times just as gruesome. Mentally down when he came back, Wawrinka won only a single match at this year's Australian Open and bailed from Indian Wells and Miami to give his surgically repaired knee, which was nowhere close to 100 percent, more time to recover.
Wawrinka then had a horrible clay-court season, and despite beating Grigor Dimitrov in the opening-round at Wimbledon, lost his second match at the All England Club. But Wawrinka has been feeling better about his health this summer, and it showed Monday.
In a fortuitous circumstance, Wawrinka drew Dimitrov in the first round of the US Open on Monday and muscled his way past the No. 8 seed 6-3, 6-2, 7-5. Ranked No. 101 in the world, Wawrinka showed he's still top-player material.
"I'm really happy first with the victory, that's for sure, and with my level in general," Wawrinka said. "I think I have been practicing well."
Now 33, Wawrinka isn't far removed from a period in which he thought about calling it a career. He knew his comeback would be a long and drawn out -- and at times painful with no guarantees his hard rehab work was worth the effort. Still, something drove him.
"I always had this little voice saying, 'No, you want more, you don't want to stop, you can do it and you need to get through this,'" Wawrinka said. "I told myself, 'Try to be patient, and you will see when you are fully back, if your level is there or not.'
"My last four years before getting injured, I won three Grand Slams; I made the final of the last Grand Slam I played basically fully fit. That's when I was at my top. So that's when it became like, 'OK, there is no chance I'm going to stop now. I cannot just be stopped by an injury.'"
Wawrinka said he had pushed himself to and past his threshold the past 10 years. Always wanting more. But that ambition eventually led to overzealous training, which resulted in injury.
"How am I going to handle that pain, not only in the knee, but that pain of trying to get back to your level by being so down and weak mentally," Wawrinka said. "That's when I had some tough days."
Wawrinka concedes he still needs to work on his stamina and guard against further injuries, but the way he played against Dimitrov suggests he doesn't need to worry about whether he can return to the top.
Wawrinka now speaks of unfinished business, the drive to win more. Like most competitive athletes, it just took time -- a lot of it -- before he could finally be satisfied with a performance reminiscent of his days as one of the central figures in the game.
"You have to try, you have to test, you don't know what to expect," Wawrinka said. "You don't know how well it's going to be, how bad it's going to be."
Or in the case of Wawrinka, just how good it can turn out.