The biggest inspiration of my career was the reason I began playing tennis in the first place. In 1988, Miloslav Mecir won the Olympic gold medal for what was, back then, Czechoslovakia. I was five years old, and it was the first time I saw tennis on TV. That same day, I asked my parents if they could buy me a tennis racquet so that one day I, too, could make it to the Olympics.

I remember once I got the racquet and his photo, I slept with both beside me for a good couple of years, and I never stopped listening to “Hand in Hand,” the official song from the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul.

Daniela Hantuchova in her early days.

From then on, all I wanted to do was to one day make it to the Olympics. That dream never left my mind and I never stopped believing that it would happen. The reason why I practiced for seven or eight hours a day, did everything I could in the gym, even how I studied in school, I just wanted to be the best. That Olympic dream transferred to all parts of my life.

The first time I met him, I was overwhelmed and embarrassed all at once. I couldn’t even go up and speak to him. My father took me to the club where he was practicing, which was coincidentally where my grandmother also used to play, because I wanted was to have his signature in my diary. I stayed behind the fence because I didn’t have the courage to step onto the same court as him.

Over the years, we became really good friends. He ended up becoming the coach for the Slovakian Olympic tennis team, which made achieving my dream of finally making it to the Olympics three times all the more special. My last Olympics was in London, and so I got to play on Wimbledon’s Centre Court with him in my Player’s Box. I almost started to cry at how perfectly my dream had come true.

Daniela Hantuchová announces her retirement

When I was older and had the privilege to discuss tennis with him, I got to tell him how the elegance and smoothness of his groundstrokes inspired me so much. His double-handed backhand was the shot I always admired and I hoped that even a small piece of that visualization helped shape my backhand, as well.

There was a grace to how he moved about the court, and how intelligent he was. He played with a calmness that he brings to everything he does; when I watched him work as a Davis Cup captain, he looked so peaceful in the middle of such a raucous atmosphere that I almost thought he was about to fall asleep! On the court, he wasn’t the biggest hitter but he really played each match like a chess game, and that’s what inspired me.

I decided to retire in 2017; to celebrate, there was an exhibition event held in my home country. That morning I called to thank him for everything he’d done and what an inspiration he had been because I didn’t think he could make it.

Later that day, we finished with our mixed doubles match, and I was already very emotional, thinking that the day was over. The umpire announced that we needed to replay the last point, and he came onto court to surprise me and play the last point of my career with me. They played “Hand in Hand”, that same song from the 1988 Games that I listened to so many times, over the loudspeaker. By then, I literally couldn’t see the ball because the tears were flowing so much.

It was the most magical moment I could recall on the tennis court and I wouldn’t have wanted my tennis career to end – and my pursuit of new dreams to begin – any other way.

Interview by David Kane