Watching Baby Steps, I really understand how Hanashima-san felt at this moment.
I want to play…
If there’s anything I can say against Baby Steps, it’s that watching or reading Ei-chan experience the game of tennis fills me with the overwhelming desire to go out and play it myself right then and there (and unlike Ei-chan, I never found hitting against a wall all that much fun). For those who play or used to play tennis at all seriously this series is like Christmas morning, and the gifts just keep on coming. I wish the animation was better (it was actually pretty decent for most of the actual match this week, the rotoscoped bits especially) but in terms of the substance, it’s absolutely spot-on (right down to the time warning when Ei-chan spends too much time in thought between points).
I don’t know for how long the anime is going to continue to honor the truth-in-advertising title, but I’m treasuring every moment it does. It’s such a fascinating journey for me to watch unfold, because tennis is a fascinating sport and Ei-chan is a fascinating young man. As I mentioned last week, one of the things I really love about Baby Steps is that it captures the way tennis tends to attract idiosyncratic, individualistic people – not always the most likeable, but hardly ever boring. And that’s a happy happenstance for a manga and anime about the sport. Ei-chan is certainly the most interesting person in this series, but the ones surrounding him are not “mass produced models” as Midousuji would say. Coaches and players alike, the way they interact with Ei-chan is as important to his development as the game of tennis itself.
As the Kanagawa Junior Circuit is about to begin, it’s been four months since Ei-chan picked up a racket (I actually remembered it being less, but still found his progress quite realistic). He’s naturally pretty agitated – not only is this his first tennis match but his first real athletic endeavor outside of school. All the things an experienced player would take for granted – where to register, what kind of warm-up to do – are a mystery. And the things the experienced player would take in stride, like last-minute scheduling changes, are a nerve-shattering trauma. And it doesn’t help that as a member of a top-tier club like STC, he’s a natural point of curiosity and a magnet for attention.
I’ve already pointed out that Ei-chan is like a sponge, the positives of which are obvious, but there are negatives as well. Naturally everyone has well-meaning advice, most of it contradictory, but Ei-chan doesn’t have the built-in filter than most people do – when someone tells him something, he assumes it’s important and takes it seriously. It’s Takuma’s brusque and direct admonishment that breaks through the haze – just worry about what you can do. Fortunately that’s something Eichirou is very good at, but the reality is that as a new player, there are only so many things he knows how to do.
Eichirou’s opponent, Oobayashi-kun, is obviously a very good player – the #5 seed, albeit at a 4th-tier prefectural event. In fact he’s a very lucky matchup for Maruo, at least at first, because he’s a serve-and-volley player (yes, a few still exist, like California Condors) who relies on power. Ei-chan’s tennis vocabulary at this point is basically one word at a time, but after his “match” with Takuma facing a fast serve is one of the words he knows. Again, it all goes back to Ei-chan’s nature – when something stymies him, he wants to understand it. So he forces himself to deconstruct the return of a fast serve and learn how to execute it, and as Miura-coachie points out Maruo also has excellent “dynamic vision” – the ability to follow fast-moving objects and react to them. And after facing Takuma as his first live opponent, against Oobayashi he’s like a high-school hitter who’s been practicing against a 150 KMH pitching machine.
The results of the first game – a break at-love against Oobayashi’s serve – may seem like a shock (they certainly are to Oobayashi – and Ei-chan). But while dramatized, the essential notion makes sense, for the very reasons Miura-san points out. Ei-chan doesn’t have to generate power himself to return Oobayashi’s serves (fast, but nearly as much so as Takuma’s) with powerful returns, and in his understandable initial shock Oobayashi plays right into his hands. It’s only when Ei-chan serves that the truth of the matter becomes clear, and Oobayashi deserves credit for seeing it and making the simple adjustment necessary to exploit Ei-chan’s inexperience. Ei-chan is only able to muster a lollipop serve because he hasn’t been practicing it that much, and he can’t generate any pace on Oobayashi’s change-up serves. The next five games are a whitewash in the experienced player’s favor.
Here again we see Ei-chan displaying a quality that serves him well as an athlete – not some WSJ superpower or level-up triggered by a childhood memory, but simple, ordinary perseverance. Vision, persistence, resourcefulness, self-awareness – individually they’re unremarkable, but together – and to the degree this boy has them – they’re a powerful force both in the classroom and on the court. The drive to understand never stops – and when it’s clear that the status quo offers no hope, Ei-chan looks for some way to at least change the dynamic enough to stay in points. Notebook in-hand at the change-overs he breaks down his break-down and comes up with a very sensible strategy to make the best of things – aim for the middle of the court to give himself the widest margin for error (there’s another reason why this is a wise choice, but whether Ei-chan instinctively realizes it or is simply lucky is impossible to say), and just try and stay in the point for as long as he can.
Along the way, Ei-chan also realizes that his best hope is to rely on what he knows he can do well – observe and analyze – and discovers that his strengths can be used in a very specific and critical way on the tennis court. But then, this is exactly why Miura suggested that Ei-chan play a tournament match before he was seemingly ready – not to worry about the result, but to put him in a position where he was forced to adapt and strategize, and see whether the spark of possibility he saw in Maruo was the real thing (obviously it is, or we wouldn’t have a series). The real journey to becoming good at a sport is just as the title says, one of baby steps – but it’s incredibly rare that we see it depicted that way. To whatever extent that survives the transition from manga to anime, it’s going to be one of the most fascinating we’ve seen in any sports series.