Before we begin, this seems like the right post to pass along congratulations to Nishikori Kei, who this week achieved a major milestone – he became the first Japanese man to break into the Top 10 in the ATP rankings. Nishikori-san is 24 but broke onto the pro scene very early, winning his first tournament and making the Round of 16 at the U.S. Open at just 17 years old before bowing out to Juan Martin del Potro (who stands almost a foot taller). It’s been, to coin a phrase, a journey of baby steps for “Project 45” (his nickname based on achieving what would be the then best-ever ranking for a Japanese male), who’s one of the smallest players on the men’s tour. Omedettou gozaimasu on making history, Kei-san.
It’s been suggested by some that Nishikori was a model for Ei-chan (and also for another player we’ll presumably meet later), though mangaka Katsuki Hikaru (who’s obviously a huge tennis geek) denies he’s primarily based on any one player. There are some broad similarities, most keenly that both are players renowned for their intelligence and work ethic and not gifted with great natural size or strength. I tend to think of all of the major tennis characters in Baby Steps as broad archetypes rather than modeled on individuals, as I believe that’s how they’re written – but even in that context Eichirou is a pretty unique specimen. He’s his own archetype.
It’s an unusual problem for me to have with any series, but avoiding giddiness is a major issue for me with Baby Steps right now. The adaptation continues to be almost 100% on-point with the manga (six episodes, thirteen chapters) and I’m ecstatic for every moment that’s the case. It’s a quandary – I neither want to focus on what seem to be inevitable future departures in order to conform to a 25-episode schedule or be falsely confident based on a lack of them, but simply to enjoy the faithfulness for as long as it lasts. As much as I love this series (and that’s an awful lot) it isn’t an easy balance to maintain.
As it stands, it’s all good. And as a former tennis player and a huge fan of sports anime, I’m re-living the experience of being stunned by just how good Baby Steps is. I feel very much as if the audience is experiencing the tennis awakening right along with Ei-chan, and it’s a slow and deliberate process (fittingly so, given the title). There are no miracles in his match with Oobayashi – he loses 6-1 (after breaking at love in the first game). But as they say, the score doesn’t reflect how close the match was. It ends up lasting 67 minutes because of Ei-chan’s ability to read Oobayashi’s shots, and he cements a reputation early on as a “pusher” – no, not someone peddling dope in the park, but a guy who acts as a “human backboard” getting everything back without trying for winners (for what it’s worth Brad Gilbert, who coached Nishikori for a year and helped him learn English with his endless yammering, was known as perhaps the greatest professional pusher ever on the men’s side).
This experience is very revealing both for Ei-chan, and about him. He lacks the experience and understanding of the game to realize that he’s achieved something remarkable despite losing, but those around him – Nat-chan, Takuma (yes), Oobayashi and certainly Coach Miura realize it. And Ei-chan also lacks the repertoire of skills to make good use of what he’s been able to achieve – he can read his opponent’s intentions, but not hit the ball back with any authority. He’s extending the match, but he can’t actually string points together to win games. But – and this is the critical reveal here – Ei-chan realizes this is what’s happening. I’ve said it before, but Maruo’s self-awareness may be his most valuable ability. He recognizes where the gap is – and knowing, as they say, is half the battle (in this case I’d argue even more). And being who he is, this knowledge makes him want to figure out how to overcome the obstacle – so much so that he drags his tired body out to hit against the wall on the night of his loss despite the lure of steamed squash on the table and his Dad on the next train home.
I don’t want to wax poetic here, but I think there’s something truly profound and heartwarming in this element of Baby Steps. Ei-chan isn’t a superman, but just a kid who has several traits which individually would mean little in a sport like tennis, but taken as a whole give him great ability. He has the great dynamic vision that allowed him to spot his Dad on the train every night as he patiently waited for his return. He has the patience and attention for detail to remember every stroke he hits and make a note of it. He has the will and determination not to be crushed by losing – only disappointed – but rather to use it as motivation to get better. And the self-awareness and intellectual curiosity to see his own strengths and weaknesses, and want to work on them both. The most powerful moment of the episode in many ways is when Ei-chan sheepishly admits “I had fun” to his coach, because it says so much about who he is and what he’s experiencing for the first time.
Fortunately for Ei-chan (and almost all young athletes who achieve great success, I think) he has a very smart and insightful coach on hand for the start of his journey. Miura has the eye to recognize Maruo’s great potential, sure, but I also love the way he talks to his pupil. He’s absolutely no BS – he tells Eichirou exactly what he thinks, encourages him and compliments him (Japanese coaches in general are way too spare with praise for child athletes, premised on their worry about their “ego” getting too big), without sparing him the harsh reality of just how much work will be required if Maruo wants to really get better. “Good eyes don’t make you a good tennis player” he chides the boy when Ei-chan tries to attribute his surprising progress to that – and he’s right. What Ei-chan has been doing via his note-taking, without realizing it, is making sure his practice isn’t simply repetition – it’s actually focused work that’s forcing him to get better (just as his dedicated study of the passing trains looking for his Dad was training his dynamic vision without his realizing it).
When Miura invites Maruo to Court 1 the next morning, it’s another baby step – a commitment from the man and the boy that this is a journey they both want to make. And we meet some of the many faces Ei-chan will encounter along the way – Iwasa-kun, Miyagawa-kun, Araya-kun – all of them are memorable in their own right, but there’s time to discuss them when their spotlight moments come. Competitive tennis can be a very small world, and the peculiarly individual nature of the game makes these kinds of relationships – and friendships – more intense than they would be in most sports. And that, too, is a major part of the journey Ei-chan takes in Baby Steps.