Dubai: World number one Chen Long hopes to crown by far the most successful year of his career by retaining his title at the Super Series finals starting here on Wednesday - though the late withdrawal of his legendary compatriot Lin Dan offers the hint of a long term warning.
Chen has won seven big titles including the World and the All-England championships, enjoyed a surge of confidence like never before, and headed the points table throughout 2015.
"I have learned to deal with the pressure and relax. I don`t think about being a champion - I just put my heart into the game I love," said the Chinese player, who is the first man to win more than 100,000 ranking points.
But the absence here with an unspecified injury of his legendary compatriot Lin Dan, who travelled all the way to Rio de Janeiro to savour the ambience in a test event at the Olympic venue last month, may be significant.
It suggests Lin may have started a winter training programme which, he has said, will be a prelude to "being totally focused on competitions" in the build-up to the Games. There in nine months` time he seeks a third successive Olympic gold medal.
That is one of several reasons for Chen`s need to demonstrate that he will remain number one. Another is that his ability to do it acquired an iota of doubt after losses to Lee Chong Wei in China and Hong Kong last month were followed by the former world number one from Malaysia winning the last three Super Series tournaments of the year.
Those successes came just too late for Lee to qualify for this week`s Super Series finals because he had spent eight months out with a doping ban. They did though raised questions as to whether the Chinese camp might re-evaluate the relative potential of its two leading players for the Olympics.
If it is thought likely that Chen will have further trouble with Lee, then Lin Dan may gain extra support for a push for a third gold medal. Solid performances from Chen in defence of this week`s title may therefore have increased value.
Chen can take comfort from having added new ingredients to a game which once depended greatly on mid-court containment using a long reach from his six-foot two-inch (1.88m) frame. Now he can take the initiative more and switch from attack to defence and back more fluently.
However Chen may also be mindful of the threat from Japan`s Kento Momota, who helped take the Thomas Cup away from China 18 months ago, and who has since climbed to five in the world, as well as two ambitious Danes, Jan Jorgensen and Viktor Axelsen.
Lin Dan`s replacement, Tian Houwei, a 23-year-old from Fujian, may also be good enough to make an impact on the evidence of his reaching the French Open final in October.
Meanwhile while Kidambi Srikanth, the young Indian who belatedly squeezed into the eighth and final qualifying spot by a mere 200 points, will now be relatively pressure-free and capable of ambush. The other two men`s singles qualifiers are Chou Tien Chen of Taiwan and Hu Yun of Hong Kong.
The women`s titleholder is another Taiwanese, Tai Tzu Ying, whose task will be much tougher this year because the field will contain Carolina Marin, the two-time world champion.
Last year Marin was denied a place because the rules at that time did not give an automatic place to the world champion. Then the pioneering Spaniard was outside the top ten. Now she heads the list.
Men`s singles groups
A.- Chen Long (China), Jan Jorgensen (Denmark), Tian Houwei (China), Hu Yun (Hong Kong) B.- Kento Momota (Japan), Viktor Axelsen (Denmark), Chou Tien Chen (Taiwan), Kidambi Srikanth (India).
Women`s singles groups
A.- Carolina Marin (Spain), Nozomi Ukuhara (Japan), Saina Nehwal (India), Tai Tzu Ying (Taiwan) B.- Wang Shixian (China), Wang Yihan (China), Ratchanok Intanon (Thailand), Sung Ji-hyun (South Korea)