Back-from-the-brink victories by Kim Clijsters had given the defending champion an air of invincibility at Melbourne Park this year, but Thursday's three-set semi-final loss to Victoria Azarenka in her Australian Open farewell proved even the teak-tough Belgian is fallable.
Clijsters had been hoping for a fairy-tale finish on Rod Laver Arena, where she has been known affectionately as "Aussie Kim" by the local public since her one-time engagement to former world number one Lleyton Hewitt.
It had appeared a sure bet as she levelled at a set apiece, with the temperamental Azarenka crumbling before her eyes and the stands roaring her on after every winning point.
In previous matches, iron-woman Clijsters had saved four match points against Li Na after shrugging off an ankle injury, and eased past Caroline Wozniacki in straights sets, dislodging the Dane from the top ranking in the process.
But with a fifth grand slam crown beckoning, a stunned Clijsters cracked under the pressure and was broken three times in a deciding third set in which she clattered 18 unforced errors.
In a glittering stop-start career, Clijsters has retired once, married, become a mother and notched up four grand slams among her 41 tour wins, but the losses still burn the 28-year-old Belgian.
"This one, I think we both played some really, really good tennis. But it's unfortunate when you get so close," the usually ebullient Belgian told reporters gloomily.
CHANGING OF THE GUARD
"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.
"That's something that is disappointing. But, yeah, 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 has confirmed 2012 will be her last on the tour and though she has spoken longingly of winning a medal for Belgium at the London Olympics, her loss to Azarenka underlined a changing of the guard in women's tennis.
The 2009-10 champion Serena Williams was dumped out earlier after carrying an ankle injury through the tournament, while Wozniacki's former number one ranking remains up for grabs.
Despite being comfortable with her decision to retire for a second time, her last appearance at Melbourne Park had yet to sink in and she was reluctant to imagine where she would be in 12 months.
Her competitor instincts were quickly re-ignited with talk of the next grand slam farewell, however.
"That's definitely been one of the frustrations that I think I've had over these last couple of years, or even since I've come back, is that I haven't really been able to give it a good shot at the French Open," said Clijsters, who came back in 2009 after leaving the game in 2007 to start a family.
"It is a challenge. It's one of the goals that I have this season, is 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."
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