It is a very simple and familiar concept in sports, but worth taking out of the pantry and putting in full view when it helpfully describes how an athlete or team is evolving.
I am currently juggling my coverage of tennis with my (paid) coverage of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament in the United States. The NCAA Tournament is comprised of 68 teams. This upcoming Thursday and Friday, 16 teams left in the tournament — on its second weekend — will compete for spots in the Elite Eight on Saturday and Sunday. The winners of those Elite Eight games on Saturday and Sunday will make the Final Four in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on April 6.
The Final Four — for my readers outside North America — is the holy grail of college basketball in America. If you make the Final Four, you have had a great season by any measurement. If a college basketball school is viewed as a “Final Four-level school,” it has attained the highest level of prominence and stature in the sport. Everyone wants to be a “Final Four program,” a school which can realistically compete for a spot in the Final Four every season, or at least 90 percent of the time. Only a few schools have that level of heft, however.
Some programs are happy to be Sweet 16 programs. Others are happy if they simply make the NCAA Tournament every year and are one of the 68 top teams in the country.
As said above, not everyone can be a Final Four program in college basketball.
This construct is similar in tennis, which — like the NCAA Tournament — features single-elimination competition, whereas the NBA and NHL involve seven-game series to decide their postseasons.
In tennis, there are major champion players. There are semifinal-level players. There are quarterfinal-level players, and so on. Not everyone can be a champion or a finalist or semifinalist. There are many rooms in this big, sprawling mansion called “professional tennis.” Players are reasonably making the grade at all levels of competition.
Within this construct, the notion of “ceilings and floors” is relevant.
How high can you climb? That’s your ceiling. How good are you on a regular and sustainable basis, tossing out an aberrationally bad tournament here and here? That’s your floor.
Very simply, then, Ashleigh Barty — who will turn 23 years old in late April — is clearly raising her floor.
A player not yet 23 has a lot of tennis left to play. Barty’s ceiling might not be known for a few years. What she can do — and what she needed to do entering this 2019 season — was not to soar the way Bianca Andreescu has, but to raise her floor.
Barty was running into a wall at a lot of rounds of 32 and 16 at important tournaments. Could she become a quarterfinal-level player with great consistency at big tournaments?
After her win over Kiki Bertens on Monday at the Miami Open, here is Barty’s line of results in the three biggest tournaments of 2019: quarterfinal, R-16, quarterfinal. That third result is still active, with Barty preparing to face Petra Kvitova in the Miami quarters Tuesday night.
Barty has, very simply, elevated her floor. Her R-16 loss in Indian Wells was a long and close three-setter against Elina Svitolina, so in important tournaments, Barty has not picked up a single loss to a player she expected to defeat. At the biggest tournaments, she is beating everyone she is supposed to, and even picking off a higher-seeded player, as she did against Bertens on Monday.
This is how a tennis player grows, and this is how a tennis player makes a home in a room inside the big mansion of tennis.
We will see in 2019 if Barty can gain an even higher room in this mansion. Her floor is certainly rising.