MELBOURNE – Spain's Garbine Muguruza on Thursday won a battle of former number ones, defeating fourth seed Simona Halep 7-6 (10-8), 7-5 in extremely hot conditions to reach her first Australian Open final.
Muguruza on Saturday will face world number 15 Sofia Kenin, who earlier in the day upset top seed Ash Barty 7-6 (8-6), 7-5 on her own home soil to reach her first career slam final.
Spain's Muguruza, who competed unseeded for the first time since 2014, got the first break on 3-3 thanks to her 12th winner, but the Romanian fourth seed broke back when it mattered most as Muguruza served for the opener, bringing things back to 5-5, with a tie-break eventually needed to break the impasse.
Both players had chances to take the lead, but eventually it was the Spanish 26-year-old who came out on top after 67 minutes of play.
Three consecutive breaks led to Halep serving to stay in the match on 5-4, but Muguruza kept her under pressure, converting her fourth break point in the game to tie things up to 5-5.
After a convincing hold, Muguruza got Halep on the ropes again after earning two match points.
The Romanian defused the first one with a winning backhand, but she closed the following rally with a ball in the net as she the chance to play a second Melbourne final after losing to Caroline Wozniacki in 2018.
Muguruza, who has been struggling to go deep into slams, reaching just one semi-final since winning Wimbledon in 2017, started her Melbourne campaign with a viral infection and really struggled health-wise at the start of the tournament.
"You start day by day, that's what I was doing, each match at a time. [I'm] very excited to be in the final, you know, it's a long way to go and I have one more match on Saturday," the two-time grand slam champion said.
Earlier, 23-year-old Barty wasted three shots at a break on 3-2 in the opener, putting two slice backhands in the net and hitting a forehand return long.
Barty did not get another chance to take the lead, and offered Kenin no looks at all. In the tie-break she wasted a 4-2 lead and then two set point chances, with the American converting her lone shot to take the first set in just under an hour.
After 69 minutes of play Barty pocketed the first break of the match and consolidated it on her serve to go ahead 3-1. The world number one had two set points on 5-4, but Kenin voided one with a winner and Barty hit a forehand long to waste the second.
The American then failed to convert her first break point of the match, but not the second, bringing things back to 5-5. After a strong hold by the American, Barty made two unforced errors - including her first double fault of the contest - to hand Kenin two match points.
Barty hit a winner to defuse the first but then hit a long ball to put an end to Barty's dream run in Melbourne. With the win, Kenin becomes the youngest woman to reach an Australian Open final in 12 years.
"I'm so grateful and thankful for this moment," an incredulous Kenin said. "Honestly I'm just so speechless. I honestly can't believe it. I've just dreamed about this moment since I was five years old ... I've worked so hard to get here."
"At the end of the day she played the biggest points well," Barty said after the defeat.
"I mean I kind of felt like I was scrapping and trying to find what I wanted to do best and came within a couple of points of winning the match but sometimes, you know, it folds your way and sometimes it doesn't ... that's sport, that's life."
Both contests were played in extreme heat conditions, with temperatures in Melbourne up to 39 degrees Celsius according to Victoria's Bureau of Meteorology, and would have seen an extended 10-minute break between second and third set if they had gone so far due to the tournament's extreme heat policy.
Had the conditions worsened during play, the game could have ended up suspended to allow the roof at Rod Laver Arena to close. This could still happen the men's semi-finals between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic to be contested on the court on Thursday evening.
Play on all outside courts, where juniors and wheelchair competitions are underway, was suspended for at least half an hour in the afternoon, with some matches delayed as long as over two hours.