After Wozniacki withstood a major wobble with the finish line in sight to beat Elise Mertens 6-3 7-6 (7/2), Halep defeated title favourite Angelique Kerber 6-3 4-6 9-7, with the third set a battle of lung-busting brilliance.
The final will be a clash between the top two seeds who share more than simply proximity in the rankings.
Both have been ranked number one without winning a slam, both lost their first two finals and, heading into the second half of their careers, both know they may never get a better chance.
Cynics would call it the desperation derby, and whichever player handles the occasion better is very likely to come out the winner.
Halep achieved the bigger result in the semi-finals, beating the form player of 2017, former Melbourne champion Kerber, who went into the clash on a 10-match winning streak.
It pitted two of the best athletes and counter-punchers on the women’s tour against each other, so long rallies seemed to be a given, yet after 13 minutes the score was 5-0 to Halep.
But Kerber mounted a comeback, winning three games in a row, before Halep broke serve again to take the set. The Romanian has made no secret that her sole focus now is on winning a slam title, but Kerber clung on by her fingernails in the second set, recovering from 1-3 and then saving break points that would have given Halep a 5-3 lead.
She got her reward with three games in a row to take the set as Halep’s belief wavered and then broke to start the third with an extraordinary point that was a taste of things to come.
Halep looked to have made the decisive breakthrough when she opened up a 5-3 lead but Kerber broke back, ending the final titanic point on her knees with her head pressed to the court.
A pinpoint HawkEye challenge gave Halep two match points in the next game but Kerber saved them both and then gave herself the chance to serve for victory at 6-5. She got to 40-15 but now it was Halep’s turn to dig in and hang on.
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 25, 2018
They were the fourth and fifth match points the Romanian has saved this tournament after she withstood three in another remarkable battle against Lauren Davis in round three.
Halep said: “It definitely was very tough, I’m shaking, I’m very emotional. She’s a very tough opponent. I’m really glad that I could resist and I could win this match. I have just to enjoy.
“I had just confidence in myself. I decided after I twist my ankle (in the first round) that I will fight for every point in this tournament and then I will rest. I didn’t give up, not even a ball. If you don’t give up you can win the match in the end. I did it and I’m really proud of myself.”
All seemed to be going smoothly for Wozniacki against surprise package Mertens in the first match until she served for the match at 5-4 in the second set and from 30-0 lost four straight points, double-faulting on the last of them.
Wozniacki then had to save two set points but, seven years after holding match point in the last four here against Li Na and losing, she engineered a different outcome.
Provided by Press Association Sport
The Danish world number two won 6-3, 7-6 (7/2) in 1hr 37min after almost allowing the world number 37 a way back when serving for the match at 5-4, and seemingly in complete control.
Two double faults enabled Mertens, in her first semi-final at this level on her Australian Open debut, to level at 5-5.
Serving to take it to a tiebreak at 5-6 Wozniacki then needed to save three sets points before sealing the match in the tiebreak.
“It means so much to me.” she said after reaching her maiden Australian Open final and her first Grand Slam decider since 2014, where she will play either top seed Simona Halep or the 2016 Melbourne Park champion Angelique Kerber on Saturday.
“I got really tight at 5-4. I thought ‘calm down it’s all good’. It wasn’t good anymore. Served a couple of double faults.
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 25, 2018
“Normally I am really calm so once I started feeling really nervous, it felt like my legs were shaking a bit.
“I just took a few deep breaths and once she had set point, I said: ‘Well, I guess it is a third set. Just need to go forward’.”
Wozniacki has never quite lived up to the hype in the majors – this will be just her third Grand Slam final appearance, nine years after her first at the US Open in 2009.
The 27-year-old rose to the top of the world rankings in 2010 but has only made the title match at a Grand Slam once since then, also at Flushing Meadows in 2014.
Mertens, in only her fifth Grand Slam appearance and Australian Open debut, signalled her intent to attack from the start, standing inside the baseline to receive Wozniacki’s second serve.
It was a high-risk strategy and with Wozniacki repelling all the Belgian’s aggressive overtures, the errors began to flow at regular intervals from Mertens’ racket.
Serving at 1-3, 15-40, a netted forehand, her fifth unforced error on that wing, gave the Dane, back in a semi-final at Melbourne for the first time since 2011, the first break.
Mertens, seeking to become the first Belgian since Kim Clijsters here in 2011 to reach a Slam final, kept up the attack and fashioned a break point in the next game but Wozniacki stood up to the challenge and held for 4-1.
Serving at 2-5, Mertens saved a set point when Wozniacki went long with a forehand. The Dane was unperturbed by the minor setback and held to love to seal a comfortable first set 6-3 after 38 minutes.
There was little between the pair in terms of winners in the first stanza, Wozniacki edging the count 13 to 12. But the unforced error count was telling – the Dane committing just six while Mertens threw away 14 points.
The second set went with serve until the Dane’s late wobble, before she finally made it through.
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 25, 2018
Provided by AFP Sport
It had been almost 20 years since multiple unseeded players had last reached the semi-finals at the Australian Open. A decade since just one unseeded player featured in the last-four in Melbourne.
This fortnight, world No. 49 Kyle Edmund, and No. 58 Chung Hyeon have made a statement for the younger generation, storming into the semi-finals at Melbourne Park. Unseeded and aged 23 and 21 respectively, Edmund and Chung have impressed with their unlikely runs, bringing with them a breath of fresh air to an ageing tour.
“I think it’s a good thing,” said the 36-year-old Roger Federer on the arrival of the young guns to the big stage. “They got to make a move. I find it disappointing when their breakthroughs come at 27, because then we know them for seven years, let’s say. I like it when we don’t know the guys.
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) January 24, 2018
“I hardly know Chung. I’ve hardly spoken to him. I had one Nike appearance once with Edmund over in London. That’s about it. Maybe otherwise I’ve shaken his hand twice and spoken a few words to him. In a way I like it, because it’s really something totally new to me and to some extent for you guys, too,” he told reporters in Melbourne on Wednesday after defeating Tomas Berdych in straight sets to reach a record-extending 14th Australian Open semi-final.
Federer reminds everyone though that his generation is still far from done.
“It’s not going to happen all the time. We like our rivalries that do exist on the tour. New names are good, from time to time, of course for the tour,” added the Swiss.
They definitely are.
HERO OF THE DAY
Chung’s personality and character continue to shine through Down Under. His straight-sets dismissal of Tennys Sandgren on Wednesday on the heels of his huge upset over six-time champion Novak Djokovic was celebrated for more reasons than one. This was my favourite line from Chung after his quarter-final triumph.
“I think I’m not tired because I win. When I win the match against top player, never tired. Just happy, no? Mentally happy, nothing tired,” said the Next Gen ATP Finals champion.
Spoken like a true star in the making.
STATS OF THE DAY
1 – Simona Halep is the first Romanian woman to reach the semi-finals of the Australian Open.
5 – wins and five losses for Halep in Grand Slam quarter-finals throughout her career.
6 – wins and two losses for Kerber in career Grand Slam quarter-finals.
9 – matches in a row Berdych has now lost to Federer.
10 – years since an unseeded man has made the Australian Open semi-finals (Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in 2008) prior to this fortnight.
14 – Australian Open semi-finals reached by Federer, extending his Open Era record. Stefan Edberg is behind him in second place with eight.
14 – consecutive matches Kerber has now won in 2018, against zero losses.
19 – years since multiple unseeded men have reached the semi-finals of the Australian Open (Lapentti, Haas, Enqvist in 1999) prior to this fortnight. Chung and Edmund have changed that now.
43 – Grand Slam semi-finals Federer has now reached. Another Open Era record.
61 – winners from Federer in his three-set win over Berdych.
QUOTES OF THE DAY
“I don’t know. Maybe he has couple more gray hair.”
— Tomas Berdych when asked what about the difference between the Federer he faced on Wednesday, and the one he faced in Melbourne a year ago.
“I’m evolving, guys (smiling). I’m growing. I think I’m handling myself pretty well right now. We’ll just go with that for today.”
— Madison Keys when told she usually reacts to tough losses in a much more emotional way.
“Seeing what has happened to so many other top seeds here in the draw, I was a bit wary going into tonight.”
— Roger Federer was actually nervous ahead of his match against Tomas Berdych. He’s now beaten him nine times in a row.
“All Asian players looking for Kei and we trying to follow him. He’s the pride of Asian player.”
— Chung pays tribute to Japan’s Kei Nishikori.