Seldom, if ever, has it been more tempting to stay away from the Olympics as alarm signals real and exaggerated emanated from Rio the last few months.
The now-familiar terms of Zika and “public calamity” and “WELCOME TO HELL,” and the economic meltdown and a spike in violent crime, were plenty enough to give pause to anyone.
Even athletes for whom this is the pinnacle.
And if you’re, say, an elite tennis player, for whom this is decidedly not the pinnacle, there were other disincentives:
The International Tennis Federation was rewarding no points or financial motivation for performances here, and, well, there sure is a busy fall schedule ahead.
So for one reason or another, a handful of notable stars aren’t here.
“Everyone’s different; it’s a personal opinion, a personal choice … ,” said Jack Sock, the Blue Valley North graduate ranked 23rd in the world. “There were a bunch of things someone could choose from to decide not to come.”
As it happens, Sock had more reason than most to refrain.
The day before he was to leave for Rio, his doctor back in the Kansas City area served him up a chest X-ray to clarify what he figured Sock had after weeks of coughing and aching and progressive weakness:
Walking pneumonia it was.
Which evidently gave Sock not a moment’s pause about what to do next.
“I would have come down here with anything but a broken bone,” he said Sunday after winning his doubles match with partner Steve Johnson in straight sets (6-2, 6-2) over Julio Peralta and Hans Podlipnik-Castillo of Chile.
As he said this, Sock seemed to be feeling better than he had the day before, when he somewhat surprisingly lost 6-4, 6-4 to 118th-ranked Taro Daniel to be abruptly eliminated from singles competition in the first round.
Just the same, Sock was still feeling ragged enough that he coughed more and more frequently in the cool evening air as the match began after more than two hours of delays because of high winds.
So when Sock and the guy from The Star there to interview him started to shake hands in greeting, each thought better of it.
Rotten as he feels, though, Sock’s stance towards the Olympics is an appealing and refreshing perspective that says something important.
Especially out of someone long known more for brashness and bratty episodes than the appreciation and sensitivity he showed as his brother Eric lay in a coma for 10 days a little over a year ago before recovering from Lemierre’s Syndrome, a rare bacterial infection that can be fatal and was attacking Eric’s liver, kidney and heart.
It says something about both some serious depth and an element of innocence to Sock, 23, the Nebraska native who as a youth moved with his mother, Pam, and Eric to Overland Park to train at the Mike Wolf Tennis Academy.
That fine stuff was on vivid display earlier this year at the Hopman Cup in Perth, Australia.
When a serve by Australian Lleyton Hewitt was ruled a fault, Sock smiled and called out “that was in if you want to challenge it” to an incredulous Hewitt — a gesture that can be seen on a YouTube clip that’s enjoyed nearly 1.5 million views.
When Hewitt indeed challenged, and won, Sock laughed and gave him a thumb’s up as the Australian announcer offered what constitutes high praise in the land down under: “Good on you, Jack.”
Hewitt went on to beat Sock 7-5, 6-4, but Sock’s virtuous courtesy resonated more than the loss.
And there’s something just as sporting and moving in how he’s treating the Olympics: as an honor to be treasured however he performs here.
“I could lose first (round), first and first in all three events,” said Sock, who may compete in mixed doubles. “And I wouldn’t change a thing going in.”
Maybe if he’s fortunate enough to be selected for the 2020 Tokyo Games, he wouldn’t spend so much time roaming the Olympic Village and mingling and eating with other athletes from around the world in the days before — whether he were sick or otherwise.
But no way he will ever miss an opening ceremony.
Because this one simply was “the coolest thing I’ve ever been a part of,” said Sock, who, in fact, also has also been a part of a Wimbledon doubles championship and U.S. Open mixed doubles title and has come to especially thrive in the team notion.
The ceremony was so surreal as to actually feel “fake,” he said, almost as if he was a character within a video game.
“It was like a movie, almost,” he said. “You’re lined up there, and everybody is huddled up and you look through (to the field) and all you could see was this massive shining light to where you couldn’t even see what was out there.”
Absorbing the “USA” chants as he walked with teammates in the Parade of Nations and looked up into Maracana Stadium, Sock was overwhelmed and googly-eyed.
So what if he was bleary-eyed, then, after being on his feet for six hours and only sleeping a little bit before his 7 a.m. wakeup call to get ready to play Saturday?
This wasn’t about winning or losing so much as it was getting to represent his country.
That’s why for all the reasons not to be here, including logistical concerns that meant his family stayed home, here was Sock on Sunday:
On antibiotics and gunked up and miserable, playing before a mere 150 people or so on Court 9 — and reveling in the privilege.
Vahe Gregorian: @vgregorian