Chinese table tennis player Zhang Jike (File Photo: China News Service/Sheng Jiapeng)
Champion's career in question as TV time replaces table time
It's been too long since Chinese table tennis megastar Zhang Jike stood on the highest medal podium.
Loud cheers for Zhang are now only heard on TV reality and variety shows, leading some to question whether the former Olympic champion, who turns 30 this month, will ever return to his best.
Zhang has always been a sensation in China.
He became only the fourth male player in the history of his sport to earn a career grand slam (Olympics, world championships and World Cup) when he won singles gold at the 2012 London Games.
That feat was achieved in record time - 445 days - before he narrowly missed out on what would have been a unique second slam cycle when he took silver at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
In August 2016 he stated his intention to go for a third Olympic gold at Tokyo 2020.
However, the dearth of sports headlines and glut of entertainment news about Zhang in recent months does not bode well for that bid.
Fans are concerned that Zhang is too caught up in the circus of celebrity life, with some fearing it could be a sign of his looming retirement.
Shenzhen Bay Sports Center has been the scene of many famous Zhang triumphs on the table. However, when 11,000 screaming fans greeted his return there in December, he had no racket in his hand. Instead, he cradled a video game controller, showing off his skills as part of the entertainment at the King Pro League, an e-sports competition based on Tencent's King of Glory title.
Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of viewers have watched his exploits on a real-life simulation of that game, the reality TV show King Strike.
Zhang is also a regular guest on a cooking show, a singing contest... the list goes on and on.
He tried to douse the retirement rumors in January when he reaffirmed his commitment to the Chinese national team, and when he wrote "K loves T" in the snow during a recent episode of King Strike, some fans interpreted it as a denial that retirement was on the cards - K meaning Ke, the abbreviation of his last name, and T possibly meaning table tennis.
Sports stars' ever increasing involvement in variety and reality shows has raised questions about the delicate balance between their athletic and showbiz pursuits.
Unlike in the West, where agents rule the roost, the General Administration of Sport of China (GASC) manages the majority of elite athletes in a wide range of affairs, from training to public relations to commercial endorsements.
Zhang is not the only conflicted Chinese sports star.
Boxer Zou Shiming has faced criticism over his TV appearances and commercial activities, while swimmer Ning Zetao caused an uproar when he signed a personal endorsement deal without the GASC's permission after winning the 100 meters freestyle at the 2014 FINA World Championships.
Ning's career has since been on the slide, culminating in his dismissal from the national team after a disappointing showing at the Rio Olympics.
So what now for Zhang?
He returned to international duty following a five-month absence at the German Open in November but slumped to an opening-round loss to Portugal's world No 40 Tiago Apolonia.
There has been no sign of Zhang at the table since, resulting in the former world No 1 dropping to 54th in the rankings.
He will also miss the 2018 Table Tennis World Cup in London later this month.
Meanwhile, the Chinese Table Tennis Association's new selection criteria could hinder Zhang on the comeback trail.
Since January, Chinese players who fail to make it through qualifying rounds or lose their opening round against an opponent from a rival association will not be considered for the next tournament.
Given Zhang's performance in Germany, his age and history of injury problems, it looks like the road back to top form is looking increasingly steep for the Chinese legend.