With “happy tears”, Indian tennis legend Sania Mirza on Sunday ended her path-breaking journey as a player at the place where it all began.
By playing in exhibition matches featuring Rohan Bopanna, Yuvraj Singh and her ‘best friend’ Bethanie Mettek Sands, Sania finally said goodbye to her illustrious career at the Lal Bahadur Tennis Stadium, the venue where she signalled her arrival on the big stage with a historic WTA singles title triumph nearly two decades ago.
The exhibition games were watched by eminent personalities, including union law minister Kiren Rijiju and former India cricket team captain Mohammed Azharuddin.
Having arrived at the venue in a swanky red car, the 36-year-old Sania was greeted by cheering fans that also included prominent personalities.
Sania, who turned emotional while giving her farewell speech, said the greatest honour for her has been to play for the country for 20 years.
On the occasion, the six-time Grand Slam winner (three in women’s doubles and as many in mixed doubles) played two mixed doubles exhibition matches and won both of them.
The venue, where she had won some memorable titles, wore a festive look with banners like ‘Celebrating The Legacy of Sania Mirza’ put up.
Some fans held placards that read ‘thank you for the memories’ and ‘we will miss you, Sania’.
Spectators, mostly school children, cheered her as she entered the court.
“I am so excited to play my last match in front of you all,” she said, speaking ahead of the match.
Rijiju, who was formerly the union sports minister, Telangana minister K T Rama Rao, Azharuddin and Yuvraj were among the guests present at the venue.
“I have come to Hyderabad for Sania Mirza’s send-off, her farewell match. I am delighted to see so many people turning up for this. Sania Mirza is an inspiration not just for Indian tennis but for India sports too,” said Rijiju.
“When I was the sports minister I used to be touch with Sania. I wish her all the very best for her future endeavours.” Her family members and friends were also present at the venue.
After the match, Sania was felicitated by Rama Rao and Telangana sports minister V Srinivas Goud.
“The greatest honour for me has been to play for my country for 20 years. It is every athlete’s dream to represent their country at the highest level. I was able to do that,” Sania, who thanked everyone for supporting her in her journey, said.
As fans cheered her, Sania turned emotional.
“These are very, very happy tears. I could not have asked for a better send-off,” she said.
Though she may have retired, she is going to be part of tennis and sports in India and in Telangana, she said.
She hoped that “many, many Sanias” would emerge in the country.
Azharuddin, whose son is married to Sania’s younger sister Anam, praised her contribution to tennis.
“I think today we are giving a great farewell to Sania. What she has done for tennis for women in India and all over the world, I think, it is an example. I wish her all the best,” Azharuddin told reporters.
“I know people would want her to continue to play more. But every career has to end. I think she has taken the right decision,” he said.
Several fans said they feel sad over Sania retiring from professional tennis.