Kohei Uchimura returned to the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Doha on Friday, a year after tearing ankle ligaments in qualifying which ruled him out of competition in Montreal.
The three-time Olympic gold medallist and six-time world all-around champion was limited to just three events, and posted the best score on the horizontal bar.
But Uchimura did not always show his trademark technical precision in qualification, slipping off the pommel horse in the final rotation.
The 29-year-old Japanese had already ruled himself out of the all-around competition due to another ankle problem, and knows he is short of peak physical condition.
Uchimura said, "If I competed six events, I could say I was tired. But I didn't.
"Even though I didn’t do six events, I felt kind of tired when I got to pommels. And also, I didn’t have good training on the pommel horse."
Russia stormed into the lead on Thursday, posting a massive 258.402.
They stayed in front for all of Friday but China were just over half a point behind with their defending all-around champion Xio Ruoteng heading the individual standings.
Japan finished third, more than five points adrift of the Russians.
The United States were fourth with Great Britain rounding out the top five and setting up an epic battle in Monday's team final where Tokyo 2020 berths are on the line.
Double Olympic champion Max Whitlock is only competing on the floor and pommel horse in Doha, and admits Team GB face an uphill struggle to secure a medal and, with it, a place in the Olympic team competition.
Ruoteng top-scored with 87.332, less than a quarter of a point ahead of Russia's Nikita Nagornyy.
Sam Mikulak led the Americans with the third-highest individual total, exactly 0.500 behind Nagornyy.
Another Russian, Artur Dalaloyan, lies third ahead of Japan's Kenzo Shirai who took all-around bronze in 2017. Two stand outs from last year's competition, Russia's David Belyavskiy and silver medalist Lin Chaopan, will miss the all-around final after finishing third among their respective teams.
Ukraine's defending Olympic parallel bars champion Oleg Verniaiev showed he will be hard to beat in Doha with his score of 15.458 more than four-tenths clear of the rest of the field.
It was the lone bright spot for the Rio all-around runner-up who is returning to the World Championships after operations on his shoulder and leg.
“Survive,” he told Olympic Channel of his hopes for Qatar with a laugh earlier this week.
That’s what many of the top teams will be looking to do when they get to the pommel horse in Monday’s team final.
Russia struggled on the apparatus on Thursday, and Japan and the United States fared even worse before each team’s respective anchor, Shirai and Mikulak, saved the rotation.
Shirai said: “I was feeling that if I fall here, it will keep going to the finals. So I really, really wanted to stop the flow. That’s how I worked hard on pommels today.”
For his part, Mikulak appeared calm as he stepped up to the pommel horse despite his team-mates' inability to break 13.000 before him.
“It definitely put a lot pressure (on me), but I think that moment I realised I needed that, I wanted that, because it’s going to be a lot of pressure in the next couple of meets.
"Being able to step up, rise to the occasion, just figure out how to calm myself down, that’s the biggest takeaway I got from this day.” - USA's Sam Mikulak
His ability to control his nerves will be key moving forward as Mikulak is one of the most talented American male gymnasts of all-time but has struggled to deliver under the big lights.
"To really get out on this big stage and prove I’m a big competitor out here, I think making the statement was what I wanted this day to be," he said.