|'True champion': Serena won praise from Henin after her victory [AFP]
Serena Williams defeated Belgium's Justine Henin 6-4 3-6 6-2 to win the Australian Open for the fifth time after a match of unrelenting tension between the two best players of their generation.
Henin pushed for a fairytale finish after winning through to the final just after making her comeback from retirement.
But the American weathered the storm after Henin sent the match into a deciding third set to wrap up victory after two hours and seven minutes and retain the title she won last year.
Both players were suffering from nerves at the start then battling exhaustion at the end but still managed to provide the packed Melbourne Park centre court crowd with some exquisite shotmaking and intense drama in their first Grand Slam final meeting.
"It was a great final and it could have gone any way," Williams said after receiving the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup from Margaret Court, who won a record 24 Grand Slam singles titles.
Williams thumped down 12 aces and 32 winners while Henin provided a reminder of the form that earned her seven Grand Slam titles, including the 2004 Australian Open, with 28 winners of her own.
Despite the loss, it was still a triumph of sorts for Henin, who only returned to the professional circuit this month after quitting the game in May 2008.
Wave of emotion
The 27-year-old needed an invitation to get into the tournament because she does not have an official ranking yet but rode a wave of emotion and support to become only the second wildcard to make a Grand Slam final.
Henin's compatriot Kim Clijsters won last year's US 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 on Saturday.
"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."
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.
Williams had also played in the women's doubles, which she won with her sister Venus, and 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 on the trot then sealed her win with a backhand deep into the court that Henin was unable to retrieve.
"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."
The win gave Williams her 12th Grand Slam singles title and she joined American Billie Jean King, who was watching from the Rod Laver Arena stands, in equal sixth place on the list of female singles champions.
She also became the first woman to win five Australian Open titles since the game turned professional in 1968 and the first to successfully defend her title since Jennifer Capriati won in 2001 and 2002.
Williams 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 US Open.
She escaped a suspension after the Grand Slam Committee opted to fine her but remains on a two-year probation.