By Alix Ramsay
What makes the perfect tournament director? Well, he has to be a hard-headed businessman to ensure the event turns a profit and gets the exposure necessary to keep the sponsors happy. Then again, he has to be the ultimate schmoozer, the player’s lounge lizard who can sweet-talk even the most reluctant superstar to turn out for his tournament. There are deals to be struck, flesh to press and people to impress – and that is months before a ball has been struck in anger.
Then, when that ball is thwacked away in a fit of pique, our trusty tournament director has to be the on-site sergeant major, the man who can restore order. He must ensure that every player toes the line, minds his Ps and Qs while simultaneously putting his back into it with his shoulder to the wheel and his nose to the grindstone (in the event a young chap fails to make it on the main tour, he can always earn a good living as a contortionist).
In short, a good tournament director is the iron fist in the velvet glove, the sort of bloke with whom you would gingerly shake hands and then immediately count your fingers, just in case.
Step forward, then, Ross Hutchins, the world’s nicest and politest man, and the newly appointed tournament director of the Aegon Championships at Queen’s Club. He is not the first person you think of when picturing the murky business world of tennis tournaments – and for many reasons: not only is he charming, decent and friendly with not a hint of the shady, wheeler-dealer persona oft associated with professional sports management, he is still a very active player. And he will continue to be so for as long as he can manage it which, as a 29-year-old doubles specialist, could be another decade or so. The lovely Ross has certainly broken the mould with his new promotion.
It was just over a year ago that Ross was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and embarked on a six-month course of chemotherapy. In just a matter of days he went from vying for a place in the end of year ATP World Tour Finals – he and his partner Colin Fleming just missed out on qualification at the end of 2012 – to fighting for his life.
But never one to feel sorry for himself, he soon set about helping those who were helping him. He came up with the idea of a charity tennis match – the Rally Against Cancer – to raise funds for the Royal Marsden Hospital. Securing the services of his best mate, Andy Murray, he corralled Ivan Lendl, Tomas Berdych, Tim Henman and Boris Johnson (the Mayor of London) amongst others to play a match at Queen’s Club after the singles final last summer. The idea was to raise £100,000 but in the end, he took in more than £300,000 and, at the same time, got a taste for what it might be like to run a tennis event.
“That was when I realised just how special the event [the Aegon Championships at Queen’s] is,” Ross said. “I’d always played it and loved it, it was the first event I played on Tour in 2007, and it was the event at which I had my first tour event match win, but when I got involved with the Rally Against Cancer, working with the team and seeing it from a different angle, I was struck by just how much went on behind the scenes.
“There is so much work that goes in to making this event that everyone enjoys, and I was fascinated by it. Chris Kermode [the then tournament director] invited me to join him in meetings, and I embraced the opportunity to learn from him. When he moved on to head the ATP and the job became available, I immediately had a huge passion and desire to do it.”
Four days after the big event, the doctors told Ross that he was now, officially, in remission from the cancer and, at last, he could begin working towards a return to the tour. The process took months but in January he was back in harness with Colin Fleming and at the Australian Open, they registered their first win of the year against Marinko Matosevic and Michal Przysieszny. This week, he and Colin are at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells and will take the next step on the comeback trail against Horia Tecau and Jean-Julien Rojer in the first round. It has been a remarkable journey over the past 15 months but Ross has come through it unscathed and with a new job to boot. The only downside is that as tournament director he cannot play in the Aegon Championships.
“I’ll forever see that as the biggest achievement of my life – to come through the illness and to get back on court winning matches,” he said. “To now have this role as well could not be more special. I have always believed that if you can get through tough parts of life with a positive attitude, good things will come, and this is further proof. Regarding the role at the tournament, I have always had a great attachment to the Aegon Championships and I want to help to make it even better.
“As soon as I knew that this position was going to be available and that I was keen to do it, I spoke to Colin Fleming, who has been my doubles partner for the last four years. He immediately said: “You should go for it, it’s a great opportunity and it’s a great fit for you.” It was important that my doubles partner was OK with it, and that he was supportive of me doing this because I am still very dedicated to our team, and ambitious as a tennis player. Colin will have another partner for the Aegon Championships, but either side we will be together as normal. It isn’t unusual for doubles players to have different partners, and we have been partners for so long that we are quickly able to slot back in together, so we are both comfortable with it.”
So it is true, then: nice guys do win. They do not come much nicer than Ross Hutchins and after winning the biggest match of his life against Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, glad-handing a few sponsors or putting a stroppy player in his place will seem like a doddle. Roll on the summer.