Barty has high hopes for clay season after brilliant Miami victory

Ash Barty has returned to Australia following the biggest win of her career, declaring she can be a major factor in the clay court season as she prepares for a home Fed Cup tie before the French Open in May.

The 23-year-old was looking tanned and relaxed after a golden week in Miami, where she took out one of the WTA's most-prestigious non-grand slam events and moved to No.9 in the world, cracking the top 10 for the first time.

She was on hand to watch her good friend Stephanie Gilmore, the seven-time world surfing champion surfer, hit the water at the Boost Mobile Pro on the Gold Coast before joining family and friends to celebrate her career milestone.

Like everything the grounded Barty does, it would be an occasion to thank others for their role in her success. But the Queenslander deserves every plaudit she gets after establishing herself as the nation's leading player and now, a legitimate grand slam contender.

Todd Woodbridge has already tipped Barty to one day reach world No.1 and believes it's a matter of when, not if, she's hoisting one of the major trophies. That it could be as early as Roland Garros on the Paris clay does not appear to be out of the question.

"It's very kind of them (to say I could be No.1). But there are extra steps and extra levels I have to reach to be able to do that. I'm confident in my team and the process we've put in place. I'm doing the right thing and my ranking is going in the right direction," Barty said.

"I played some unreal matches in Miami. In the past, I've put myself in the right position and gave myself an opportunity to win those matches. I just wasn't able to take it. In Miami, I was able to play my brand of tennis and execute better on the bigger points."

Barty lost in the second round of last year's French Open but not without taking a set off Serena Williams. Her advancement since then has been dramatic and her adaptable game, with a looping forehand, strong serve and hugely effective slice backhand, puts her in the conversation on every surface.

She will play traditional lead-in events in Rome and Madrid before heading to Paris and expects to improve on her 2018 showing. It's not just her game that has improved; her confidence is at an all-time high and she doesn't feel any opponent is out of reach.

"It's been a while since I've been on clay. It's a short season. I only play five, six, seven weeks on it but I think I have the game on clay to be able to do some damage," Barty said.

"I just have to learn how to use it properly, learn how to enjoy it. It's something I haven't grown up with, obviously I'm more comfortable on hard court because I play on it more often. But this clay court season, in particular, is an opportunity for me to learn more about myself on that surface.

"I'm playing some of the best tennis of my life and giving myself some of the best opportunites and being able to grab them with both hands. The important thing is to continue to do that, continue to enjoy it and when I do get those opportunities, make the most of it."

Barty was hardly getting ahead of herself despite the wave of enthusiasm from Australian fans and former players. Her next goal, she said, was simply leap-frogging her way up the rankings, one rung at a time.

"Number eight … I suppose," Barty said. "But I have to continue to do the right things both on and off the court to give myself an opportunity to keep going up in the rankings. That's the process that I've learned to enjoy and embrace."

With Serena Williams no longer the unbeatable presence on the WTA Tour – dual Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka is the current number one – the women's game appears to be wide open and tournaments susceptible to runs of form from anyone in the top 15 or 20.

"Yes, it's open," Barty said. "But I also feel it's stronger than ever before. The depth across women's tennis is getting better and better. The top 30 and 40 in the world, anyone is a genuine chance of winning tournaments.

"I'm moving in the right direction. I feel great and I feel like I've got an opportunity to achieve some of my dreams."

Barty will be the lead player for Australia in the Fed Cup semi-final against Belarus at Brisbane's Pat Rafter Arena in April. From there, she heads to Italy to begin her campaign on clay.

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