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Ross Hutchins: Queen's New Leading Man

London, England

Murray, Hutchins© Getty ImagesThree-time Aegon Championships champion Andy Murray poses with his great friend, Ross Hutchins, the new tournament director at the ATP World Tour 250 grass-court event.

Ross Hutchins was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in December 2012. This week, as a cancer survivor, he switches his tennis whites for a suit as the tournament director of the Aegon Championships.

Lorries have been negotiating Palliser Road, where a flat can sell for more than £1.2 million, since 28 April. The vast East Stand of the 7,500-seater Centre Court, rising high above the gates of The Queen’s Club, has gradually come into view from Barons Court tube station 200 metres away. Graham Kimpton, keeper of the pristine lawn, where the world’s best tennis players take their first tentative steps on the slick surface each year, has worked methodically maintaining a near 50-year family association with the role of head groundsman. Pride is at stake. For many British tennis fans, summer starts in the second week of June when the Aegon Championships commences.

For the past 10 days, since his doubles loss at Roland Garros, Ross Hutchins has risen early each day, kissed his fiancée Lindsay goodbye, and driven the 40-minute journey from his four-bedroom Wimbledon family house to The Queen’s Club, founded in 1886, in order to ensure that preparations for an event that is a part of the British social season — preceding Royal Ascot, Wimbledon and the Henley Regatta — are completed to his satisfaction. His life has had a familiar pattern in recent months.

“I have tried to put my own touches on the event, whether it is social media or in the players’ lounge,” said Hutchins, looking out from his office in the red-bricked Victorian clubhouse. “I have made some tweaks, but the foundations are solid as it is an unbelievable event that every player looks forward to competing at.” Last year, the Aegon Championships wrestled away the ATP World Tour 250 Tournament Of The Year award from 11-time winner, the SkiStar Swedish Open, in Bastad.

In March 2014, Hutchins was named its new tournament director. At 29 years of age, he realises that he has a lot to live up to. With his best friend, Andy Murray, as the third seed and three-time champion this year, Hutchins is determined to make a good impression as an administrator. Starting today, Hutchins will resist the temptation to dress in his tennis whites and head out for a practice court in favour of wearing a Ted Baker suit to preside over one of the sport’s oldest events. 

It has been quite the transformation. Two years ago, his playing career had a major jolt.

"I didn't feel like playing tennis... and I love playing tennis."

“My back pain was quite sporadic,” admitted Hutchins, in an interview with ATPWorldTour.com, at his house that is a little over two miles from the All England Club, Wimbledon. “It was there for one week starting in April 2012, and then it went away again for two months. But leading in to the Asian swing, it became constant. For three straight weeks, I slept maybe two hours per night. From nine o’clock at night to five in the morning, I was mainly lying on the floor of my hotel room in excruciating back pain. I could not believe that there was pain that bad, that I had not experienced before.”

At the end of a successful three-tournament Asian swing with Colin Fleming, alarm bells started ringing. One month later, the pair served as alternates at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. Hutchins was lean and tanned after a solid season, but lacked drive.

“When I was playing practice sets with other players in the field, I was playing really poorly and I wasn’t feeling right. It was not just the back pain, but I was also fatigued and my reactions — that were normally pretty good in doubles at the net — were slow. I wasn’t enjoying it that much. There were rumours that we might actually play because [Radek] Stepanek was carrying a bad knee injury. I knew something was wrong, as I wasn’t up for it. Afterwards, I went to play French club tennis for Grenoble and barely won a game. I played awfully.

Fleming, Hutchins at Shanghai, October 2012“I said to my brother [Blake], ‘Something isn’t right here. I have had a good year and I am playing shambolically.’ I did not understand. I didn’t feel like playing tennis… and I love playing tennis. I took some time off, but I never felt I was recovering from the stress of the year. I went to La Manga in Spain, but I was sent home for tests. I then got diagnosed.”

Several physiotherapists had initially suspected a muscular problem, then kidney stones. He’d seen so many specialists for scans, but one showed pneumonia in the bottom of his lung and another of his upper lung revealed a shadow across his chest. On the morning of 27 December 2012, five days after a biopsy, he learned his fate. As he sat with his partner of 12 years, Lindsay, a lawyer, at their home, Hutchins picked up the phone to hear a voice on the other end of the line say, “The test results have come back. You have Hodgkin’s lymphoma, cancer of the lymphatic system.”

An airline ticket to Qatar was on the table. He had planned to play a new season.

Hutchins turns off the television in his lounge, as highlights of England’s whitewash to Australia in the 2013 Ashes cricket series flash up. With Sammy, his Labrador, prowling around the well-kept garden and rain clouds gathering, Hutchins admits, “I was initially diagnosed with Stage 2, then one week later, I got a call from my professor [Cunningham] to say it was ‘a lot more serious’. He used the words, ‘it’s still curable.’ ‘Still curable’ means that you’re verging on not good signs.

"Unfortunately, I will be away from tennis for a while as I was recently diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma."

“It was the latter stages of Stage 4, so it had spread through my body. It had gone from a two-month treatment to a minimum six-month treatment. It was worse than I had expected and the toughest thing was explaining the news to Lindsay, my family and friends.” He broke down twice. One of his first phone calls was to Andy Murray, who was soon bound for the Brisbane International presented by Suncorp. Murray won and close to tears dedicated the trophy to “one of my closest friends, who is back home watching… you are going to get through it.” Hutchins was watching with Lindsay. Few realised the significance or to whom the tribute was directed.

“It was pretty shocking,” Jamie Murray, doubles specialist and brother of Andy, told ATPWorldTour.com. “It’s not something you ever expect. I didn’t know anything about the pains in his back he had been having in previous months. Cancer is everywhere these days. You don’t expect it to happen to you or someone close to you, so young, a professional athlete. It shows you that it can get anyone.”

Three days later after Murray’s title run in Brisbane, Hutchins tweeted, “Unfortunately, I will be away from tennis for a while as I was recently diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma.” Stiliyan Petrov, the Aston Villa footballer, who had Leukemia, was one of the first people to reach out to Hutchins. “He was just finishing up his year-long treatment. He sent me a message and we spoke on the phone quite a lot. He was probably on his 10th month when I started.”

Read Part II: Hutchins - Queen's New Leading Man

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