Hutchins back in business
One day into the chemotherapy sessions he hoped would rid his body of potentially career-threatening cancer, British tennis player Ross Hutchins recalls the moment he was rushed to hospital with chest pains.
A tough time was made easier because he had the best possible team on his side - a close-knit family. As they scurried to be at his bedside, Hutchins' older brother cooked him one of his favourite meals and then raced across London to hand deliver it. "I didn't like the hospital food," Hutchins explained to ESPN while spending last Christmas at his parents' Raynes Park home. "You can never pay or ask for stuff like that.
"It [being diagnosed and treated for cancer] was the toughest time in my life. Everyone's said 'You stayed so positive throughout the whole thing', but it's not just me, it's been the positivity and belief around me. No one batted an eyelid from the moment I said it, no one ever thought there was even a question of whether I'd come through."
December 27, 2012. Aged 27, Hutchins was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma while ranked in the top 30 at doubles having just completed his most successful season on tour with two wins and two further finals.
Then came complications that arose after his first session of chemotherapy in early January 2013 and the news that the cancer had spread from stage two to four, significantly lowering the cure rate.
Fast forward to July 23, 2013. "Back on the court! Best game of tennis ever," Hutchins' brother posted on Facebook after his first outing that year following months of treatment during which he was ordered to rest. The day before had brought the news that Ross's cancer was in remission.
Message upon message of support from delighted family and friends followed and with it Hutchins' outlook was changed forever. "Yes I want to be a tennis player again but I'm also keeping the realisation of what's important in the world. Family, health and friends are far more important than tennis," he said.
Hutchins says his tennis 'family' provided heaps of good moments through the dark times. A message from women's four-time grand slam champion Kim Clijsters got a special mention.
Doubles partner Colin Fleming made it clear he wasn't going anywhere, while Hutchins' best mate Andy Murray immediately started reading everything he could about the condition and gave an emotional tribute to his childhood pal 'Percher' after winning in Brisbane a year ago.
But with busy schedules, ranking points to be picked up around the globe and tournaments to be won, it was often Hutchins' family and fiancée Lindsay who provided the most tangible support.
Chopping beetroots is hard work on the hands yet Hutchins' mother and younger sister still relish cutting them up as part of his new, healthier diet. Meanwhile father Paul, a former professional player and Britain's Davis Cup captain from 1975-87, often looks after his youngest son's dog Sammy.
Family knows best, says Hutchins. "If a nurse said 'Take it easy' I'd almost think 'No, I know better'. But if a family member told me I was looking a bit ropey, I'd go and have a rest. It's almost like they know you better than you know yourself.
"I think it's actually tougher for family members to be there than for yourself. They don't want to ask me every two minutes 'How are you feeling? Do you need anything? Can I get you some water? Are you ok?' That can get quite draining."
If those closest to Hutchins held back in any way during the chemotherapy sessions, for fear of irritating him, there will be no shortage of questions about how his career is going now he has returned in prime physical condition.
"I'm fitter now than I've been for the last six or seven years. When I was 20, 21 that was probably my peak," said Hutchins, who won his first professional title with Australian Stephen Huss in 2008 but enjoyed his best year on tour in 2012 while playing with undiagnosed cancer in his body.
"I'm able to start afresh, a second opportunity if you like, with a clean bill of health and a clean mind," he added, grateful to have had a protected top-30 ranking during his cancer battle that will enable him to enter 12 events in 2014.
Hutchins made his much-anticipated return alongside the loyal Fleming at the Brisbane International in late December. The pair promptly blitzed the first set 6-0 against Grigor Dimitrov and Jeremy Chardy before going down 10-4 in the deciding third-set tie-break.
While this week they were unable to defend the title Fleming won in Auckland 12 months ago without his great mate, next week at the Australian Open in Melbourne, with his brother Blake in support, Hutchins is targeting the quarter-finals or possibly even more. "You want to believe you can win, otherwise I wouldn't be playing this sport," he said.
"People say to me when you have a second chance, having been away, you get this love for the game and a new feeling of freedom on the court which so often restricts players. I think we can do far better than we did before.
"We've already talked about playing together for years to come and if I had my way I would play my whole career with Colin because he's a guy I love playing with and hanging out with.
"We always say 'Tell me if I'm playing poorly, tell me if you think I need to improve something.' I haven't got an ego and I don't care if he says I'm playing rubbish. We're very honest with each other."
Tom Pilcher is a freelance sports writer. You can follow him on Twitter here.