Coming Back Home

Wednesday, January 15, 2014 /by
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

MELBOURNE—You could have forgiven Ross Hutchins for wondering what had happened to the men’s tour while he was away. As he and his doubles partner, Colin Fleming, walked on to Court 15 here on Wednesday afternoon for their first Grand Slam match in more than a year, they found themselves drowned out by a raucous, and distinctly un-tennis-like, din coming from the next court. There, a player from Croatia was facing a player from Bosnia and Herzogovina; to say the crowd was into it would be the understatement of the new tennis season. There was so much energy over there that Hutchins and Fleming began to feel like some of it was being sucked away from their court.

“Amazing atmosphere, wasn’t it?” Hutchins said with a laugh later. “It just felt like there was so much atmosphere over there, it felt like nothing was happening on our court.”

Yet quite a lot was happening on Hutchins’ and Fleming’s court, as anyone who follows the game knows. This wasn’t just their first match at a major in a year, it was Hutchins’ first since being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in December 2012. Hutchins left the tour last year for chemotherapy, and the cancer has been in remission since July 2013. With that in mind, just walking out on court to play a match in the Australian Open would have been a victory. But Hutchins and Fleming made it a real one, too, when they came back from a set down to beat Marinko Matosevic and Michal Przysiezny 6-0 in the third. 

Hutchins couldn’t hide his delight from the press. After talking for a while about the match, and his “level,” and how he and Fleming had “played some good tennis,” and how they were able to “dig out a win,” Hutchins finally just stopped and smiled and said what was really on his mind:

“It was actually brilliant, to be honest, and I’m loving the feeling right now.”

Hutchins, 28, wasn’t just back on tour; he was back home. His father is Paul Hutchins, a longtime Davis Cup captain for Great Britain; Ross was born in Wimbledon and grew up practicing at the All England Club. He has played Davis Cup doubles and teamed with his good friend Andy Murray at Grand Slams. Tennis is where he’s from.

“There are a lot of people I have known since I was maybe under 16,” Hutchins said today of the welcome he has received since his return. “You sort of build up good friendships with them over the years. I’ve had a huge amount of support.”

But a tennis tour is still a funny kind of workplace to come back to. Here, your friends are also your competitors, and their job is to beat you, no matter what you’ve had to endure. Hutchins was well aware of that fact.

“It’s been nice to see a lot of people,” he said today, “but I don’t want people to feel sorry for me, as well. Like after we lost in the first week [in Brisbane], you know, [Jeremy] Chardy was saying to his coach that he felt bad beating me. I’m like, ‘No, don’t.’

"I’m a player and I want to be treated as a player....I want to be treated as another player who has just as much chance to win or lose and to be ruthless out there with these other guys.” 

The first time I saw Hutchins after he began his cancer treatments was at Queen’s Club last summer. There he the subject of one of the season’s most emotional moments, Murray’s victory speech, which he dedicated to his friend. Hutchins looked different, of course; thinner all around. More remarkable, though, was how upbeat he seemed to be. The old athlete’s swagger had been replaced by a quieter sense of calm. There was no question: It was inspiring.

Hutchins had that same sense of upbeat calm today, even as he talked about his hardest moments of the past year.

“Physically it was after the eighth of ninth chemo session,” he said. “That was the toughest time. I think my body was at the lowest. I was probably struggling the most.”

But Hutchins wouldn’t dwell on it, wouldn’t dramatize it. “Since I've been in remission,” he said, “I felt actually really good.”

Hutchins said he thought that playing doubles and talking about things with his partner had helped him with his recovery.

“The last few years we've discussed things and talked about things,” he said of his relationships with Fleming and other players. “I’m very open. I don’t normally hold many things inside. I think that helps mentally, being able to deal with things.”

As for Fleming, he said he never had any doubt that he and Hutchins would play together again.

“It was tough this time last year playing,” Fleming said. “It was sort of an emotional time. And it was tough to play without Ross, but I never actually thought that he wouldn’t come back, for some reason. [When] I found out the news, I said to him then, well, we’ll team up again. I don’t know if that was maybe naive of me or what, but I never literally once thought we wouldn’t team up again.”

Tennis is often described as a lonely, brutal, individual game. But as we can see from Hutchins' experience, it's really a game that mixes competition with brotherhood—and Hutchins was inspired to come back by both of those things. The thought of being diagnosed, going through multiple treatments, and coming back a year later to win a match at a Grand Slam is nothing short of amazing. Hutchins credits some of it to the changes in his diet and his life that cancer forced on him.

“It was,” he said of his diet, “basically sort of an accumulation of everyone who wrote in to me who have got through some of the diseases [like] mine and what they did. I just put it all together in one. I’ve kept a lot of the things going. I definitely feel in better shape now than I have in the last six or seven years.”

There was the motivation to come back to life, and there was the motivation to come back to the life of a professional athlete. Hutchins had a lot to return to, as he realized today. When he sat down in the biggest interview area at the Australian Open, the one usually reserved for the game’s stars, he took a second to inspect his unfamiliar surroundings.

“Must have done something right to get this room.”

No one disagreed with him.

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