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Justine Henin finds resources to see off Maria Sharapova

Justine Henin`s inspired season reached a suitable climax when she successfully defended her title at the tour-ending event, the WTA Championships, her victory over Maria Sharapova completing a quartet of other notable achievements.

Tired, bothered by a bad foot, and suffering from the labours of an intense season against a relatively fresh opponent, Henin`s 5-7, 7-5, 6-4 win over the comeback Russian took fully three hours and 25 minutes, the longest final since the event switched to the best of three sets in 1999.

If also made Henin the first woman ever to have earned more than five million dollars prize money in one season; the first in ten years, since Martina Hingis, to win ten titles in a season; and the first in 18 years, since Steffi Graf, to remain unbeaten post-Wimbledon.

Henin, who has recovered from a marital breakdown and ridden the emotion of a family reunion after seven years` estrangement, also achieved a personal best of 25 consecutive wins - the best on the tour in seven years.

"It`s the last day of the season, the last match and 25 wins was great motivation. It`s been fantastic and emotional and I just wanted to enjoy this last moment," said Henin, who rushed straight up into the stands to celebrate with family and back-up team.

It was nevertheless a notable effort too by Sharapova - not having achieved a win since the US Open in September, struggling with a long-term shoulder problem, and now coming so close to the title.

"I wasn`t sure I would play here and I only came here hoping to get as many matches as possible, and this happens. It`s more than I expected," she said.

The first set, lasting fully an hour and a quarter, and full of positive and varied rallies, had a suitably dramatic finish.

Three times Henin had chances to take it to a tie-breaker, and seven times she saved points to lose the set, eventually losing it on set point number eight when she top-edged a forehand under pressure.

Once it looked as though she had made it to 6-6, when she delivered a first serve down the middle and had it called an ace, game to Henin. But Sharapova appealed to Hawkeye which, surprisingly, showed it as three or four inches out, whereupon Henin delivered a double fault.

She also missed three chances to break serve at the opening of the second set, which might have shifted the momentum of the match. But by then Sharapova`s adrenaline was running high, as she began to sense a notable victory.

Sharapova had begun by serving moderately, delivering a double fault in the first game, and dropping her second service game. Before the match she had clearly still been edgy about her shoulder.

Told that she was serving well and hence asked if it was now 100 percent, she snapped back: "I don`t talk in percentages." It suggested it still was not fully fit.

Nevertheless as her shoulder warmed to the task and after she had broken back she served more solidly, but often conservatively, sometimes kick-spinning the ball in rather than risking the big boomers.

The second set was scarcely much shorter. Sharapova looked as though she were edging towards the finish line after saving three break points in the opening game and going 3-2, 4-3 up with the advantage of serving first, Henin apparently tiring.

But Henin is a good fighter as well as a great stroke-maker. Twice she broke Sharapova, whose delivery began to look a little vulnerable again, and at the second attempt converted it, closing it out for one set all with a flourish. After two hours and 20 minutes that took some doing.

Henin began to sense more strongly that she could win when Sharapova`s serve began failed her in the third game of the third set, putting her 1-2 down after two double faults sandwiched a successful Hawkeye challenge by Henin.

Soon it was 1-3 and although the former number one pulled that break of serve back, she double faulted again to go 3-4 down. This time Henin held tenaciously held on to it, and as both players tired, broke again to close it out.

"In the third set it was mentally and physically tough," said Henin. "We were both dead. But what a way to finish the season. I feel it`s a dream for me to do this after what happened this season. But I had a lot of people around me to support me and I grew up."

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