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By Ian Ransom

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Ash Barty has settled the debate about her world number one ranking with a scintillating start to the season and can leave her rivals in the dust with a deep run at Roland Garros on her return to the Grand Slam.

The Australian elected not to defend her 2019 French Open title last September due to the COVID-19 pandemic and was spotted drinking beer at an Australian Rules game at home in Queensland while her WTA Tour rivals battled on in Paris.

However, she has been hard at it since rejoining the tour this year, winning an Australian Open warm-up event in Melbourne before capturing titles in Miami and Stuttgart. She also reached the final in Madrid before retiring hurt in the quarter-finals in Rome this month.

The recurring muscle strain in her serving arm was a minor hiccup in her preparations but she will be all systems go for her bid for a second Grand Slam title, her manager told Reuters.

While Barty will be top seed, bookmakers rank reigning champion Iga Swiatek as favourite after the Polish teen thrashed Karolina Pliskova 6-0 6-0 for the Italian Open title.

Barty will be hard to beat, though, having won 11 out of her last 12 completed matches on clay.

The run has revived memories of her pre-pandemic purple patch in 2019, when she broke through for her maiden Grand Slam title at Roland Garros before swiping the number one ranking and capping a sparkling season with the WTA Finals crown.

Though unstoppable in Paris two years ago, there was some fortune in Barty’s triumph, with seeds sent packing in a series of extraordinary upsets.

Barty faced only one seed in her seven matches, the 14th seed Madison Keys in the quarter-finals, before beating unheralded Czech Marketa Vondrousova for the title.

Two years on, there can be little doubt about Barty’s credentials, having humbled a procession of top-10 players on clay in recent weeks.

She now rates herself a better player on the surface.

“I’d like to think after a couple of years’ experience playing on it, more matches, playing in different clay, different conditions, I’d love to say I’ve learned more and been able to kind of hone my craft a bit more on clay,” she said this month.

That bodes well for the 25-year-old’s hopes of shedding her “one-slam wonder” tag.

(Reporting by Ian Ransom; editing by Peter Rutherford and Pritha Sarkar)