Ross Hutchins: My relief at Grand Slam return
British doubles specialist tells Paul Newman how his year out undergoing cancer treatment can re-energise him and how his mate Andy Murray has been 'a rock' during tough times
What a difference a year can make. Twelve months ago Ross Hutchins was coming to terms with the news that his chemotherapy needed to start as soon as possible because the cancer with which he had been diagnosed was spreading fast. Next week, to the joy of the British Davis Cup doubles player and all those around him, he will return to Grand Slam competition here in Melbourne at the Australian Open.
Having been given the all-clear in July to resume light training following treatment for Hodgkin's lymphoma, 28-year-old Hutchins is back on court with his regular partner, Colin Fleming, and aiming to better their memorable 2012 season, when they just missed out on a place among the world's top eight doubles pairs at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London. Just weeks after that season-ending finale Hutchins was told that the back pains he had been experiencing for several months were caused by cancer.
"Making the World Tour Finals at the end of this year is a big goal," Hutchins tells me in Doha, just before heading to Australia for the first Slam of the year. "We think we're good enough and we think we have the youth and the energy to get there. Other sports people have come back stronger after going through similar experiences to me. I don't think having a break can hinder me. I think it can re-energise me.
"I've watched a lot of tennis and done a lot of work off the court over the last year, watching players to help our Davis Cup team. I think every year you get older you get wiser on court. That's why especially in doubles the older ones are often more consistent. When you spend time away you also realise how much you miss it. Of course I can't say what's going to happen, but I feel confident that we can have a really good year."
Part of the reason for Hutchins' optimism is that he actually feels fitter than before. In the last three months in particular he has worked tirelessly, especially during the time he spent training with his best friend, Andy Murray, at the Scot's pre-season "boot camp" in Miami in December.
"Over the last five or six years I've always been in decent shape, but because I'd lost all my fitness I had to train really hard," he says. "Now, physically I'm better than I was in the last five years. I've had to push my limits and do sessions that were really tough. I had to get back up to where I was. I think all competitive people really want to push themselves. It's been a strange feeling for me. It's almost like I've gone back to when I was 18, when I had the passion to get my fitness up there."
The work has not been easy given the huge drop in Hutchins' fitness levels while he had chemotherapy in the first six months of last year. At that time the most physical work he was able to do was half an hour once a week on a training bike plus occasional 15-minute walks.
"I kept busy with my mind, but physically I went down to zero," Hutchins says. "When I came back on court I was very weak. I had lost almost all muscle definition and I couldn't lift much in the gym. I would actually get the shakes when I was lifting weights.
"I was disappointed that I wasn't able to keep some fitness, but when I went through the chemo I realised that I would have to do some tough sessions at the end of the year. You shouldn't be in the sport if you're not willing to put in the time and the work. That's why right now I feel quite proud of myself and everyone who has helped me to get back to a stage where I feel physically decent again and able to get back on tour."
Fleming, who played with Jonny Marray last year but always said he would team up with Hutchins again when he was fit, was a great support, as was Murray. "Andy's probably the one guy outside my family I've entrusted everything with," Hutchins says. "Over the last eight years we've spent so much time off the court together. He knows everything about me. There are people in the world you feel you can rely on and you want to share things with and who you feel you can always turn to for support. He's been that guy for me.
"He was so positive from the word go. From the start he found out everything about my illness. When things looked bad at the start he knew all about it. He's been a rock for me. I've always known how he can be so generous with people who are close to him. He really looks after them and that's what he's done for me. Sometimes it's difficult to know how to repay people for things like that. All you can do is try to be a good friend back."
Typically for a player who has long been regarded as one of the nice guys of the sport, Hutchins says the thought "Why me?" has never entered his head. "There were times when I struggled, when I felt rough and didn't feel good with my body, but I never thought: 'Why have I been unlucky?' Other people have been through these things in life before me and others will go through them in the future.
"I don't know why it happens to people. All I know is that you have to get your head round it quickly. Anyone who fights any sort of illness has to come to terms with it because otherwise you're fighting a losing battle."
He adds: "I think the whole experience has made me realise what's important to me in life. When you're 25 years old and playing on tour, trying to win matches, jet-setting around the world, you become obsessed with your ranking, with winning tournaments, with picking up ranking points and earning money.
"What has happened in the last year has made me realise what the values of life are. It made me appreciate who I wanted to spend time with, where I wanted to be, and realise that there is a life after tennis. It broadens your horizons, makes you understand yourself and appreciate the time you spend with your family and loved ones."
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