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Li pines for Melbourne Park tormentor Clijsters

By Ian Ransom

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Li Na's Melbourne Park nemesis Kim Clijsters no longer stalks the Australian Open draw but her absence is no cause for celebration, according to the Chinese sixth seed.

If anyone should be popping champagne corks in the non attendance of the retired Belgian, it should be 30-year-old Li, Asia's first grand slam singles champion.

Teak-tough Clijsters denied Li her maiden major title in 2011's tense final at Rod Laver Arena, overhauling the Chinese in three sets to win her fourth and final grand slam.

Clijsters returned the following year to inflict further pain on Li, and despite suffering an ankle injury in their fourth-round clash, saved four match points and left her stunned opponent crying at her post-match media conference.

Li, however, said she had hoped to have a chance to exact revenge at her eighth appearance in the Australian Open singles draw.

"Why should I (be) happy? I (was) really looking forward to playing her again," Li told reporters.

"I never have (another) chance to come back, so I'm not happy.

"Every time I play against her, (it's) always (a) tough match. It's a really good challenge for myself."

Without Clijsters in the draw, a majority of pundits would say the hard-hitting Li's chances of a second major title following her 2011 French Open triumph have improved.

Li loves Melbourne Park, where she and compatriot Zheng Jie became their country's first grand slam singles semi-finalists in 2010.

"I always feel the Australian Open is more familiar," she told reporters in Mandarin.

"The staff and officials are the same every year. It's like seeing old friends again."

VOCAL SUPPORT

Li also has a flag-waving flock of Chinese supporters that can be relied upon to provide vocal support at the tournament, but has enjoyed a testy relationship with her fans.

She famously demanded the chair umpire tell them to stop 'coaching' her in Chinese as she crumbled in the deciding set of the 2011 final against Clijsters.

A plea from a Chinese reporter for a message to Melbourne's Chinese community was simply ignored by Li, who preferred to focus on the benefits of another new coach in Justine Henin's former mentor Carlos Rodriguez.

Li has employed a merry-go-round of coaches in recent years, with her husband Jiang Shan taking on the role a couple of times after being shunted aside for higher-profile figures.

Jiang, whose coaching responsibilities included being the target of his wife's occasional tantrums and acerbic wit, remains part of 'team Li', but has been kept at arm's length in the lead-up To this year's tournament.

Rodriguez had made things simpler, said Li, who will play Kazakhstan's Sesil Karantcheva in the first round on Monday.

"I am feeling more relaxed working with him," she said. "He never gives me pressure. For him, he says, 'You never know what happens on the tennis court so just try to win the first round'."

(Editing by John O'Brien)

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