Twenty-eight feels … young.
When I was little, of course, it didn’t feel that way. Back then? Twenty-eight seemed old.
But now that I’m here, I know.
Twenty-eight is young.
I got married the year I turned 28. In a few months, when Kim and I become parents for the first time, I’ll be 28. Twenty-eight feels like the beginning of something.
As a tennis player, 28 is an age at which I have much I still want to accomplish. 28 feels like a peak, a prime, a moment open with possibility.
28 is … it’s barely anything. It’s no time at all.
My best friend, Ross Hutchins, got cancer at 28.
I remember my exact internal reaction when I found out the news. It wasn’t stress. It wasn’t sadness. It was: Sorry, what?
It was disbelief. It was total, utter disbelief. You mean Ross, as in … Ross? You mean Hodgkin’s lymphoma, as in … cancer? In the back of my mind, I honestly just don’t think I believed it was true.
Ross is one of my best friends for a reason. You know how you have your “sometimes” friends? The friends where, sure, they’re alright — but you have to be in a certain mood to hang out with them? Ross is the opposite of that. Ross is my “anytime” friend: someone whom I’ve always wanted around — and who, in turn, has always been there for me.
Of course, when you find a friend like that, you hang on to them. And it didn’t take long for Ross and I to become pretty much inseparable. It helped that we had a lot of the same interests. Ross is a great athlete, and he quickly became one of my favorite hitting partners.
A hitting partner is everything in tennis. Matches, tournaments, competition — that’s the good stuff. But practice … the practice required to remain a top tennis player often astonishes people. It’s back and forth … back and forth … back and forth. Practicing tennis is about repetition — monotony by design. It takes a special sort of fitness.
So when I found out that Ross had cancer, all I could muster was disbelief. I rejected the entire notion. Like I said — it was less, Oh, no and more, Sorry, what? It was just flat-out shock. Ross was one of the fittest people I had ever met. He was an elite athlete, a Davis Cup-level tennis player. He was a good guy, my best mate.
And he was 28.
None of this computed to me, at all.
And just like that, for the first time, I found myself confronted with the reality of cancer. Here is that reality: Cancer doesn’t discriminate.
You can be the world’s fittest, healthiest person. You can be loyal, you can be “one of the good ones,” you can be anyone’s best friend.
And yes, you can be 28.
Cancer doesn’t discriminate. Its reach is blind and uncompromising. It doesn’t know who you are, and it certainly doesn’t know what you’re like.
And while this seems self-evident in retrospect, I think that coming to terms with it was a real shock for me. Ross and I are so close — but also so similar.
Fortunately, thankfully, Ross was able to win his battle. He’s doing great — and, having retired from tennis, is now the vice president of player relations for the ATP. In fact, as I type this — we’re actually going to play snooker later tonight with a couple of friends.
However, much like I’d maintained a false sense of security about cancer diagnosis prior to Ross’s battle, I think that Ross winning his battle gave me a false sense about cancer recovery. Again, it came down to what “makes sense”: mapping my notion of what should happen on to what will happen. Ross was young, and fit, and kind. He’s one of the strongest people I’ve ever known. Of course he beat cancer.
But the truth is — no one “of course” beats cancer. That’s simply not how it works. Ross was lucky.
Sadly, his luck only became all too clear to me a year later.
Bally was not so lucky. Bally is Elena Baltacha, who had been Britain’s No. 1 tennis player for nearly three years. I did not know Elena as well as I knew Ross, but still: In the tennis community, you “know.” Tennis is a small community, a small world. And in small worlds, you usually get a good sense of what everyone is like. You hear things. And trust me: When someone is a “bad apple,” in any way, you’re definitely going to hear things.
Bally — all you heard were the best things. Honestly. Just how gracious she was, how easy to work with, how nice she was to anyone she interacted with. Bally was just … a good person. She was, like Ross, “one of the good ones.” My mum coached her from a young age and was very fond of her. We all were.
When she was diagnosed with liver cancer, it was a shock to everyone.
When she succumbed to it and died at 30, it was a shock beyond shock. I could try to find the words … but I wouldn’t manage. It’s hard to process, even now.
I think that Ross’s experience, while jolting and scary, lulled me a bit into the sense that beating cancer is par for the course. Ross got it, and he fought like hell … and he won. He’s a good person, and he deserved to win, and he won. But Bally was too. She deserved to win, too. And she didn’t win.
I think that medicine has become so advanced, technology so advanced, the world so advanced … that it’s easy for us to think of cancer as just another, worse, more elaborate and involved kind of “getting sick.” You receive a diagnosis. You form a plan. You take your medicine. And that’s that. You recover. But cancer isn’t like that at all.
Cancer really, truly kills people: at any age and at any moment. It’s a relentless and heartbreaking disease. And the only way to close the gap between what people think cancer is capable of and what it is actually capable of is to fight back. Not reactively. Actively. It’s to raise awareness, and to raise money for research.
In 2013, in Ross’s honor, we held the “Rally Against Cancer” — an all-star charity tennis match at The Queen’s Club. In 2014, in Elena’s memory, we held the “Rally For Bally” — a series of all-star charity matches featuring players such as Martina Navratilova, Tim Henman and Laura Robson.
While anything that recalls Bally’s passing is going to carry an acute sense of sadness with it, the 2014 Rally had a silver lining: In the year that had passed between events, Ross had gone from cause … to participant. This time he was right there, with a racquet in his hand, across the court from me as one of my mixed-doubles opponents.
I imagine Bally would have liked that a lot.
Seeing what we have been able to accomplish, with the Rally events and others like them, has been transformative for me. Charity, and activism, and raising awareness for causes I believe in — it’s everything. Once I was able to wrap my head around the difference — the actual difference — one can make from an elevated platform, there was no turning back.
I now view charitable activism as an essential part of my everyday life. From “Rally for Bally,” which has become an annual event, and other cancer-fighting initiatives; to “Andy’s Aces,” a UNICEF initiative I’m spearheading to help with Europe’s refugee crisis; to my work with Malaria No More, to help eradicate Malaria for good; to my work as a global ambassador for the World Wildlife Fund and United for Wildlife — these efforts have shaped who I am, and represent who I want to continue to become.
I’m excited to see where we can take some of these initiatives in the coming years. I urge you to get involved. It really can be as easy as finding one thing, one cause, to believe in.
For me, it started with a belief as simple as any: that 28 isn’t old; it’s young.
That it’s too young.
And that losing even one of our “good ones” is one too many.
Andy Murray received the Arthur Ashe ATP Humanitarian of the Year award in 2014. To learn more about Andy and his charity work, visit www.andymurray.com.