Following a year away from professional tennis overcoming Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, David Packman talks to Ross Hutchins about his experience and gets far more than a tennis lesson.
A quiet confidence exudes from Ross Hutchins the minute we start speaking. I’m immediately excited about the upcoming conversation both as a tennis fan and as someone also touched by blood cancer.
Until last year, the 28 year-old was doing what he loved the most. Playing tennis. Competing on the world stage. Suddenly, some back pain became much more sinister and eventually a diagnosis of stage four Hodgkin’s Lymphoma meant six months of chemotherapy and another six regaining the fitness to mount a comeback. It also brought a fresh perspective on life.
For those who don’t follow tennis, prior to his illness, Ross was carving out a solid career in doubles on the ATP Tour with his partner Colin Fleming. They reached the quarterfinal stages at Wimbledon and the US Open and regularly represented Great Britain in Davis Cup.
He is also known to many as Andy Murray’s best friend and the man to whom the world-famous Scot tearfully dedicated a victory at the Brisbane International in 2013.
At the time, Andy privately told Ross that he would not only beat cancer, but that it would make him a better person and player…“far stronger, mentally.”
It turns out he knew his mate very well, as one year later, that’s almost exactly how it played out.
Ross’ first match back was, interestingly enough, on January 1, 2014, at the Brisbane International. Although the result went against him, he said afterwards that he had loved every second being back out there competing.
“I felt a bit rusty but that was inevitable.”
I asked him at the time whether he felt fate had played a part in his return.
“I don’t really think too much about fate,” he said. “It was just nice to be back playing in a place that means a lot to me.
“As far as playing on the first day of 2014, it actually helps draw a line under last year. I can put it aside and say that was a year I had different experiences, achieved vastly different goals. I wasn’t a tennis player for that year and I am again in 2014.”
Ross tells me it didn’t feel like he was away from the game all that long. He attributes that to staying very involved with tennis throughout his treatment with his media work, charity events and various coaching roles.
Already, Ross has hit on an important point for anyone battling a serious illness. Stay involved in the things you love and keep busy with them as much as you can.
“I think if I’d had nothing to do it would have been a lot tougher,” Ross said.
“Surrounding myself with tennis was a lot of fun and put me in positions that kept me relaxed and enjoying life with a smile on my face.”
Setting yourself goals and maintaining your ambition, no matter how big or small, is another vitally important ingredient to keeping yourself on track when dealing with serious illness.
“I made sure that every second Monday, after chemotherapy, I’d arrange meetings or do something that was quite challenging.
“I’d just make sure I got out of bed and was on a mission to achieve something,” Ross said.
“I also did a lot of things with friends, family and those I enjoyed spending time with,” he added.
Of course, spending a lot of time with those you love goes without saying.
“It all helped a great deal,” said Ross.
Does he feel the experience changed him?
“It’s something that’s quite difficult to put into words.
“I now value the smaller things. I value friends and family more. Just time spent laughing and enjoying life.”
This I know only too well myself.
“During treatment, you have a lot of time to reflect. I think it’s worthwhile to rekindle the good times. It makes you value life and learn more about what’s really important to you.
“It showed me how important just going out to a nice restaurant, spending time on holiday or playing sport is – the simple things I took for granted – now I look forward to doing these things a lot more.
“I also understand how special the people that are close to me are and how important their support and encouragement is.
“It’s probably quite obvious but these are the things that really rang out for me. Especially in the tough times, when my mind wandered a bit.”
We also both agreed that in times like these you find out a lot about people.
“I think sometimes it’s harder on the people around you than it is for you,” Ross said.
Back to tennis for a moment and I wondered if Ross felt his experience gave him anything extra on the court now he was back.
“It’s tough to know yet because I’ve only played one match but I think I’m able to play more freely.
“People talk about how it will help me to know I’ve been through tougher times, but I’m not sure whether that’s true or not. I still have massive passion and ambition and will to succeed.
“So I’m not sure if it will make a difference in my mind but I look forward to finding out.”
Perhaps being a super fit sportsman with a strong mental attitude helped in his recovery?
“Absolutely. That gave me a lot of confidence. I was in decent nick heading into the treatment. When I first got diagnosed, I was in pre-season training so I went in with a strong mind and in strong physical shape and that did help me deal with the treatment pretty well.
“I’ve been through a lot of injuries and very tough situations in the past. I think you just become more steeled to it. When you’re constantly battling your own mind, other people, injury and illness, you become stronger.
“I think that just builds over the years.”
I understood from talking to Ross that he feels it’s all about attitude. This completely mirrored my own experiences as well.
“As soon as I got told I had lymphoma, I was OK with it,” Ross said. “I believe in life that things happen for a reason and everything that comes your way you just have to deal with.
“There’s no point thinking how unlucky I was or why did this happen to me. If you start thinking like that, then you’re going to start making excuses.
“In the end, I think you can always give it your best and, with a really strong mind, you can achieve anything.”
For me, while I completely agree with Ross on this point, there is always the inevitability of desperate thoughts creeping in. I am well aware of what it feels like to wake up at 3am in a cold sweat.
During his treatment, Ross told The Guardian that when the concept of death entered his mind, he immediately switched to thoughts of survival.
“I look at it as a tennis match,” he said at the time. “Cancer is my opponent and I have to beat it. I think I’ve handled it well, and if I come through this it will be the thing I’m most proud of – how strong I’ve tried to stay.”
“I think everyone in life knows what can happen,” he told me. “You have to be realistic. You have to realise the severity of things and I’m not stupid enough to think these things can’t happen.
“But even if those thoughts came into my mind, I basically just blocked them out and thought I will respect what’s happened to me and I will accept that there are all kinds of possibilities but I’m not going to be defeated by this.”
Ross talks a little more about the importance of surrounding yourself with the right kind of people.
“If anyone wanted to talk about the worst thing that could happen, I’d just have to turn away.
“It wasn’t about being ruthless, it was just about being with people who have the same belief as you.”
Now that the 2014 season is upon him, the fire burns brighter than ever.
“Colin and I want to achieve more than we did before. We’re not just looking to see how it goes. Being back on tour is great but it’s better when you’re winning matches and you know that you’re improving and playing well.”
Many people facing a chronic or life-threatening illness will find familiar themes discussed here – maintaining a passion, keeping busy, setting goals, being surrounding by loved ones, and perhaps most importantly, believing without fear or doubt in your ability to heal.
For me that’s the interesting part. Listening to Ross’ story underscored what I innately already knew. However, seeing it play out in a public arena, having the opportunity to hear him speak and bearing witness to everything he achieved has been very empowering.
I’d like to wish Ross all the very best in 2014 and beyond and thank him again for helping me face my own challenges in a vastly more tangible way than just improving my swing.
Photo: AP/Arun Sankar K.