By Julian Linden
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Serena Williams defeated Belgium's Justine Henin 6-4 3-6 6-2 on Saturday to win the Australian Open for the fifth time after a match of unrelenting tension between the two best players of their generation.
Both players were suffering from nerves at the start then battling exhaustion at the end but still managed to provide the packed Melbourne Park center court crowd with some exquisite shotmaking and intense drama in their first grand slam final meeting.
"It was definitely a tough match mentally and physically," she told a news conference.
"I felt like we both were out there trying to kind of prove something. I think we both did at the end of the day."
Despite the loss, it was a personal triumph for Henin, who only returned to the professional circuit this month after quitting the game in May 2008.
The 27-year-old needed an invitation to get into the tournament because she did not have an official ranking but rode a wave of emotion and support to become only the second female wildcard to make a grand slam final.
Henin's compatriot Kim Clijsters won last year's U.S. Open after making her own fairytale comeback, beating Williams in the semi-finals.
"It's been a very emotional couple of weeks for me," Henin said. "I'd like to congratulate Serena, she's a real champion."
"I thought it would never happen again and finally I could really come back on the court and enjoy the tournament."
Wearing an aqua-blue shirt and traditional white skirt, Henin looked in danger of being overpowered by the world number one when Williams won the opening set in 51 minutes.
However, the Belgian reeled off four games in a row to snatch the second set as the American started showing signs of fatigue.
She won 15 points in a row and had two break points on William's serve early in the third set but the American fired down two booming aces and a couple of winners to break Henin's resistance.
"She was under pressure but she served unbelievable in that game," Henin said. "She's a real champion. She plays the right shot at the right time.
"After that, mentally it was a little bit harder to stay in the match.
"Of course I'm disappointed, to lose in the final of a grand slam, especially in three sets but there are a lot of positive things."
Williams who on Friday won the women's doubles with her sister Venus, was wearing bandages on both legs but just when it seemed she was fading, she regained her composure as Henin started to wilt.
Williams won the last four games then sealed her win with a backhand deep into the court.
"I thought I just gotta man up, this is my chance, no matter what I've got one more set and I just gotta get through it and I did," Williams told the Seven Network.
"I thought I was just giving it to her at that point... I literally said to myself I need to man up and keep playing better."
She almost missed the championship after landing in hot water following her foul-mouthed attack on a lineswoman during her loss to Clijsters at last year's U.S. Open.
She escaped a suspension after the Grand Slam Committee opted to fine her but remains on a two-year probation.
(Editing by Alison Wildey.)