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Sharapova made to fight all the way for Paris glory

For the second time in three years, Maria Sharapova is the French Open women's singles champion and for the umpteenth time in her trophy-laden career, it was the Russian's sheer will to win that got her over the line yesterday.

Ten years after she burst on to the scene by winning Wimbledon, the 27-year-old now owns two Roland Garros titles, having mastered the clay surface she once foundered on.

But it needed yet another gargantuan effort from Sharapova to see off the new kid on the block Simona Halep in a 6-4, 6-7, 6-4 victory that was in doubt until the very last ball.

"This is the toughest Grand Slam final I have ever played and all respect to Simona, she played an unbelievable match today," said a jubilant Sharapova, shaking her head in apparent disbelief as the stood clutching the trophy.

"It's a dream come true. This victory is so important for my career. To think I've won it twice, I don't know, I'm so emotional right now I can't even talk."

Fourth seed Halep, whose rise to the top over the past year has been little short of extraordinary, played nervelessly to take the match into a decider and but for the will of Sharapova, she would have won her first Grand Slam title.

Just 22, the Romanian's time will come and she played a huge part in a drama-packed match, the first women's final to go the distance since Jennifer Capriati edged out Kim Clijsters 12-10 in the decider in 2001.

It was also the first time Sharapova had gone to three sets in any of her nine Grand Slam finals but it was her stamina and ability to maintain her focus and desire throughout four straight three-set battles that delivered the title. This was her 20th successive three-set win on clay and she has now won 27 of her last 28 matches on the surface when it goes the distance, a mark of her physical and mental stamina.

Unlike the last three rounds, Sharapova won the first set and at 2-0 in the second, the match looked over, even if Halep had shown enough in the opener to suggest she would not go quietly and even if the Sharapova serve was malfunctioning.

A break back for 2-1 in the second confirmed Halep's intention, in her first Grand Slam final, and her stunning athleticism and court coverage forced the ever-aggressive Sharapova into mistakes.

On a day when temperatures touched 30 degrees, the pair played some brilliant rallies. One in particular, at 4-4 and deuce in the second set, gave Halep a chance to break, which she took.

Though there was little net play to excite the purists, the pair's baseline exchanges were attack against defence and of the highest standard.

Sharapova broke back immediately to love, but Halep broke again, only for the Russian to force a tie-break. At 5-3 in the tie-break, Sharapova was close to victory but suddenly tightened up and four consecutive unforced errors, the last a backhand wide, gave Halep the set.

Sharapova, who had been pushing the limits of allowed time between points, then took a bathroom break before the start of the third, something that didn't endear her to the crowd captivated by proceedings on Court Philippe Chatrier. But the Siberian is made of strong enough stuff not to worry what people think of her and when she returned she broke immediately to move ahead again.

Yet again Halep fought back and at 2-1 she had a chance to extend her lead only for Sharapova to shut the door. However, after breaking for 4-2, the latter threw in another double fault - she hit 12 in all - and Halep was back level at 4-4.

But over the course of her career Sharapova has shown she can bounce back from disappointment time and time again, and she broke the Romanian before serving out for victory.

Until this year, Halep was little known outside of Romania. Her fans made their presence felt yesterday, while her support team - as well as former Romania great Ion Tiriac - wore red to make their allegiance known.

The junior champion here in 2008, Halep took her time to break through but six titles in the second half of last year blasted her into the elite and she has maintained her momentum.

"I had two incredible weeks," she said. "It has been an amazing tournament. I played my best and I'm really happy. I hope to have more experiences like this in the future."

Halep will rise to No 3 in the world rankings while Sharapova is back into the top five and with very few points to defend for the rest of the year, the Russian will be eyeing an even higher spot.

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