SHANGHAI (AFP) - Lin Dan is regarded as the best badminton player of all time but his brilliance has faded markedly and Chinese fans and media are readying his career obituary.
Widely known as "Super Dan" during his pomp, the 35-year-old Chinese last Wednesday (Nov 14) suffered his ninth first-round defeat in 19 tournaments this year, underlining his steep decline.
The former world No. 1, who has won every major prize in badminton - some of them multiple times - appears determined to go for a third Olympic title at Tokyo 2020.
But badminton's answer to Roger Federer will be nearly 37 by then, and unlike the Swiss tennis great all the signs are that he is already well past his prime.
Time waits for no sportsman, even one of the best ever produced by China.
Lin is currently ranked 13th, below compatriots Shi Yuqi and Chen Long, and each country can send a maximum of two men's singles players to the Olympics.
"It all depends because there are very many strong players in China," Lin said of his chances of making it a grand career finale in Tokyo.
"They're very strong so I have to be on top of them," Lin, a fiery and controversial character down the years, said following his latest opening-round loss, to world champion Kento Momota at the Hong Kong Open last week.
Lin's long list of achievements include five world titles between 2006 and 2013, back-to-back Olympic golds in 2008 and 2012 and six All England crowns.
In 2011, he became the first player to complete the 'Super Grand Slam' of badminton's nine major titles.
Lin's victories are often accompanied by exuberant celebrations when he rips off his shirt and gives a military salute to the crowd.
But he has won just one tournament this year, the New Zealand Open in May.
Some Chinese media have taken to calling him "First-Round Lin" because of his habit of falling at the first hurdle.
He was bestowed the same unflattering label at the start of his career, before he fulfilled his potential.
"With his growing years and decline in status, 'Super Dan' has shown obvious signs of fatigue," Chinese outlet The Paper said following his loss to Momota, the 24-year-old Japanese who represents the new guard at the top of men's badminton.
Lin was caught in a "vicious circle" of first-round defeats, which led to his ranking tumbling, in turn giving him harder draws in tournaments, the Shanghai-based website said.
A Tencent Sports article said that Lin was in the midst of "a brutal winter".
"He used to be a legendary character admired by thousands of people on the world badminton stage," it said.
"And now in such a state... time is ruthless," the article added, praising nevertheless his enduring "tenacity" and sportsmanship.
Lin will, however, need "a magic bullet" to reach the Tokyo Games, it warned.
With his tattoos and rebellious streak - and a rap sheet that included once hitting a coach - Lin is something of an unusual character in Chinese sports.
For years he was hugely popular, combining good looks with brilliant shot-making and athleticism.
But some in China have never forgiven him after he had an affair while his wife, Xie Xingfang, herself a former badminton world champion, was heavily pregnant in 2016.