Why tennis will survive the growing number of defections from Rio

The prospect of winning gold isn't good enough for some of tennis's most decorated players. Last week, Bob and Mike Bryan, owners of 16 Grand Slam titles, became the latest to drop out of the Rio Games, which start later this week.

The brothers, who won the gold medal in London four years ago, joined a number of top-10 singles players bailing on Rio. Unfortunate, yes, but a permanent blemish on tennis? Far from it.

We still have Serena Williams, who will enter the competition fresh off her record-tying 22nd Grand Slam title run at Wimbledon. The men's top player, Novak Djokovic, will also be there. After running through the French Open field to cap a career Grand Slam, the only chasm in his résumé is Olympic gold.

Yes, tennis will survive the defections.

In fact, many elements in the Olympic controversy underscore how successfully tennis has lifted itself out of the gilded ghetto of elitist, individual sports to become a full-fledged member of the Olympic family. If you want to see just how far tennis has come, you only have to look at the crisis in golf.

Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy -- the top four golfers in the world -- are among those skipping Rio, most of them because of concerns over Zika.

Golf, back in the Olympics for the first time after an absence of 112 years, might not get invited back because of the lack of enthusiasm. McIlroy rubbed a little salt in the wound when he said during an interview at The Open that he wouldn't even watch the Olympic golf on TV. Instead, he would watch "the stuff that matters."

Tennis got off to a somewhat rocky start in the Olympics as well. Canceled in 1924, it returned with the Games of 1988 in Seoul, South Korea. Only two of the top 10 men were entered that year -- and not because injuries prevented them from going.

Top-ranked Mats Wilander withdrew, citing shin splints, but then played a tournament in Italy before the games in Seoul were even over. No. 2-ranked Ivan Lendl couldn't get official sanction to play for his adopted home in the U.S., and he refused to play for his native Czechoslovakia.

Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe were indifferent, as was Martina Navratilova. To them, it was all about the Grand Slams. All that hullabaloo about the Olympic Village, hobnobbing with the world's greatest athletes, the Olympic spirit ... it just wasn't for them. They were lone wolves, mercenaries who got paid to play. Years later, McEnroe would come to regret his stance.

But globally, Olympic champions have always been accorded national-hero status almost everywhere. And today, tennis has become no different. Lindsay Davenport and Andre Agassi, who understood the Olympic cachet, won gold for the U.S. in Atlanta in 1996. It helped shape the attitude of American players for years to come.

You certainly can't overlook the fidelity of the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena. You can analyze their loyalty to the Olympic cause many ways, but maybe it just comes down to this: It's impossible to predict who will -- or won't -- be susceptible to the tug of patriotism. It's a deeply personal thing.

Top-ranked European players have generally all reveled in the opportunity.

Roger Federer made his Olympic Games debut in Sydney, Australia, in 2000. He still glows when he describes the experience, either because he was just 19 and made the semis or because he began dating his wife, Mirka, there -- or both. His respect for the Olympics has burned undiminished for nearly two decades. Its influence cannot be overestimated.

It's a pity that Federer's left knee gave out before he could make good on his promise to spend his 34th summer chasing gold in the molten light of the Brazil afternoon. It unfairly dampens the impressive response the players have mustered to the challenges of Rio.

Realistically speaking, tennis players don't need the Olympics, especially these Olympics. They play a sport with great material rewards, loaded with year-round opportunities. They heard the horror stories about raw sewage in the streets, and they've been aware of the security concerns. They play an individual sport. They can choose to take a pass and it's nobody else's nevermind.

They can skip the Olympics, as some invariably do, because the Games are shoehorned into an already loaded summer schedule. This year, they can skip them because of Brazil's notorious crime. Because there's a Bruce Springsteen concert somewhere. Because of deadly Zika mosquitoes. Because the internet in Rio is slow. Because there are no ranking points to be gained.

But the wonderful thing for tennis is that the vast majority of eligible players, including the very best players, are all-in for Rio. They're setting aside their concerns and going. Tennis is loved by the Olympics, and it's loving the Olympics back. Everybody wins.