MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — With a quick wave and a smile, Kim Clijsters walked out of Rod Laver Arena for probably the last time in her professional career on Thursday, leaving behind a crowd that has come to view her as their own.
Clijsters, who plans to retire at the end of the season, was adopted by fans when she began dating Australian Lleyton Hewitt in 2000 and the affection didn't wear off after the couple split in 2004.
Playing on the Australia Day national holiday, her every winner was raucously cheered against Victoria Azarenka, but the Belarusian maintained her composure to win a seesaw semifinal 6-4, 1-6, 6-3 Thursday at the Australian Open.
One of the biggest cheers came when Clijsters walked off court and disappeared from view. The Belgian has never been the sentimental type.
"I mean, you don't think about it," she said of her emotions when the arena. "The loss is too fresh, I think, to think about something else. So I'm sure that will sink in the next couple of days."
By that time, she will back at her home in Belgium, where she lives with American husband Brian Lynch, a retired basketball player, and their nearly 4-year-old daughter Jada.
Lynch sat nervously courtside on Thursday to watch an absorbing semifinal, one of the best women's matches of the tournament.
"I'm sure I lost a few days of my life in that box but it was all worth it. Wifey is a true champ!" he tweeted afterward.
Spending more time with her husband and daughter is one of Clijsters' priorities after she ends her career, but she says she isn't in a hurry to leave tennis.
"I enjoy being at home. But I still enjoy playing tennis very much. I enjoy the challenge," she said. "I'm lucky enough that I'm capable of being in this position where Jada and my husband, they're capable of traveling with me, because otherwise it would be too hard to do that.
"Tennis has given me so many great memories and emotional rollercoasters. I don't think you can experience that again in any other thing in life, maybe except giving birth."
Clijsters has already retired once — in 2007 — but was tempted back in 2009 and has since won three Grand Slam titles.
She won the Australian Open a year ago but the remainder of the season was marred by shoulder, wrist and abdominal injuries. A twisted ankle last week almost curtailed the defense of her title.
Playing Li Na in the fourth round, she stumbled and turned her left ankle midway through the first set and needed immediate treatment. As her opponent struggled with nerves, a hobbling Clijsters somehow came from four match points down to win in three sets.
She had considered quitting, but didn't want to retire from her last match at the Australian Open. That sort of fighting spirit has endeared her to the sport-loving Australian public, and it showed against the 22-year-old Azarenka.
Scampering from side to side, retrieving balls that most players would not have got close to let alone returned, the 28-year-old Clijsters didn't seem at all bothered by her ankle. Several times, she almost did the splits as she stretched out wide to force her opponent to play one more ball.
Trailing 4-2 in the deciding set, Clijsters recovered from 40-0 down on her opponent's serve, saved another three game points and broke back — to elicit what must have been one of the loudest cheers of the fortnight.
"She made me run so much, I felt like I was running like a marathon out there," Azarenka said.
It wasn't enough. Azarenka broke right back and served out the win to reach her first Grand Slam final.
"It's unfortunate when you get so close," Clijsters said. "I know I'm capable of beating all these girls, but it's whoever's better on the day wins and gets to go through.
"But I could have been home already two days ago. I feel that I really gave it 200 percent, so in that way I really don't feel like I could have done anything differently these last two weeks."
Clijsters didn't reflect on her loss for long before looking ahead to her next target: The French Open, where she lost in the finals in 2001 and 2003.
"It is a challenge," she said. "It's one of the goals that I have this season, to give myself a really good preparation on the clay courts and try to be close to my best level when I get to the French Open."