Ross Hutchins basked in the feeling of being a grand slam winner again after achieving the latest milestone in his remarkable comeback from cancer.
Twelve months ago the 28-year-old doubles specialist was beginning six months of chemotherapy to treat Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Hutchins had to build up his fitness from nothing after being told he was in remission in July but, on a baking hot Melbourne afternoon, he and Scot Colin Fleming beat Marinko Matosevic and Michal Przysiezny 4-6, 6-4, 6-0 in the first round of the Australian Open. It was Hutchins’ first victory since his return to the tour, which came earlier this month in Brisbane.
He said: “It’s an amazing feeling to be back, and especially to get our first win since coming back in 2014. I think we have played some good tennis throughout this year so far, but unfortunately we lost our first two matches. My level probably wasn’t as high as I hoped it had been. But I think we did well to dig out a win today. It was actually brilliant to be honest, and I’m loving the feeling right now. This is a fantastic tournament, and I’m just thrilled to be back involved and back able to, hopefully, try to win more matches.”
Hutchins approached his illness and the debilitating treatment with a remarkable positivity and has been welcomed back with a huge degree of affection by the tennis world. But the Londoner is adamant he does not want to be seen as a victim and victories on the court, rather than on a hospital bed, are what matter to him now.
He said: “It’s been nice to see a lot of people. I have had a huge amount of support. But I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. After we lost in the first week, [Jeremy] Chardy was saying to his coach he felt bad for beating me. I’m like, ‘No, don’t’. I’m a player and I want to be treated as a player. Today again, at the end of the match the guys shook hands and said it was great to see me back.
“That’s really nice, it means a lot to me to have people actually say that because I did miss the tour a lot, and especially I missed playing with Colin and hanging around with the guys and just seeing the guys that you see week in and week out.”
Fleming and Hutchins made a nervous start in a football-type atmosphere drifting across from the neighbouring court where Bosnian fans, complete with an accordion, were enthusiastically supporting Damir Dzumhur. Hutchins dropped serve with a poor volley and they could not get back into the set, with Fleming taking a medical time-out to have his left thigh massaged.
The critical moments of the match came at the end of the second set. First Hutchins saved two break points in the ninth game before a volley winner from the Londoner gave the British pair their first break and the set. Australian Matosevic and Pole Przysiezny never recovered and it took Fleming and Hutchins only 20 minutes to race through the deciding set.
Hutchins said: “The start of today’s match, I think we were both a little bit nervous. We wanted it a bit badly.
Fleming had promised Hutchins on the day he was given the diagnosis that they would team up again whenever his friend was ready. He said: “When we won I felt a bit emotional. It was a real release. It was very tough this time last year.
“Even though I managed to win a tournament in Auckland, it was an emotional time. And it was tough to play without Ross, but I never thought that he wouldn’t come back.
“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. I saw Ross play in September, at Davis Cup, and he was playing well then. He’s hard on himself saying he didn’t play well the last couple of weeks. He’s been playing great the whole time. I’m excited for the future.”
Also in the doubles draw, two-times grand slam champion Pat Rafter’s return to the big-time after retiring 13 years ago lasted just 73 minutes when he and his former Davis Cup team mate Lleyton Hewitt lost in straight sets.
Australia’s Davis Cup captain appeared to have lost little of his touch in the 6-4, 7-5 loss to doubles specialists Eric Butorac and Raven Klaasen, despite lamenting his shaky return of serve at the age of 41.
“I was pretty nervous, I was copping it in the locker room, we were having a lot of fun – at my expense,” Rafter said after playing the twilight match on a steamy day at Melbourne Park.
“A lot of my mates were saying ‘Don’t cramp’.
“[Ivan] Lendl’s a menace, he’s an absolute pest, he was giving it to me,” Rafter said of the Czech eight-time grand slam winner, who now coaches Andy Murray.
Despite the defeat, Rafter appeared to be having far more fun than in his previous doubles match with Hewitt in the A-grade, when the pair lost a Davis Cup clash in the 2001 final which effectively handed the trophy to France.