Tennis: 'Aussie Kim' finds it's tough to say goodbye

World No 5 Kim Clijsters says emotions will play a big part when she launches her final Australian Open campaign before an adoring crowd at Melbourne's Rod Laver Arena.

The 23-year-old will retire at the end of the year to start a family and settle down with future husband, American basketball player Brian Lynch, in her native Belgium.

Clijsters said she would be sad to play for the last time in Melbourne, where she has always enjoyed a strong following and was once known as "Aussie Kim" when engaged to local hero Lleyton Hewitt.

The tournament fourth seed said she was drinking in all the details of her farewell appearance in Melbourne, where she made the final in 2004 and reached the semifinals three times.

"It's very special," she said. "I think you appreciate it so much more. Not just the support, but all the details ... like being here in Melbourne, like being in Sydney last week.

"Just saying goodbye at the end of a tournament makes it harder as well ... and not seeing all the people and the friends that I've met throughout the years."

Clijsters has started the year in sizzling form, winning the Champions Challenge in Hong Kong and last week's Sydney International with a gritty comeback win over Jelena Jankovic.

"It's better than I expected," she said.

"I'm very happy with the way that I played. What I'm more happy with is that I didn't start the [Sydney] tournament off playing great, but, you know, I still felt like I was improving compared to Hong Kong.

"In the finals, I think I started seeing the ball a lot better. That was good to just gradually see myself improve every match."

Clijsters said she wanted to maintain the improvement going into the Open but shied away from any bold predictions about her prospects of claiming a second Grand Slam to go with her 2005 US Open trophy.

"I'm very focused on trying to win, but everything's possible," she said.

"There's 127 other girls trying to do the same thing, I guess. I just have to try to be as ready as possible and we'll see where it ends."

After almost a decade on the tour, Clijsters said her body was telling her it could no longer cope and it was time to hang up her racket.

"After a while, the last couple years, I really started to realise that my body was physically not able to do that any more," she said.

"That's very frustrating to deal with that. It's very hard. I know how well I was able to feel when I played some of my best tennis and how well I felt. Not always having that now is very frustrating."

Clijsters has a tough first round match against Hobart International finalist Vasilisa Bardina of Russia and could meet Martina Hingis in the quarter-finals.

- AFP

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