Sports anime are like snowflakes – no two alike. So are sports manga leads and tennis players, and thank goodness for that. I suppose such a series would be boring if the main character wasn’t exceptional, but the thing is that there are different kinds of exceptional. Sometimes it’s easy to see (as with Honda Gorou from Major, say) and sometimes – as with Maruo Eichirou – you have to look a little harder. And sometimes people who seem profoundly “normal” are the most exceptional people of all.
It’s interesting reading the Baby Steps manga (which is ongoing) at the same time as I’m watching the anime, which is some 200 chapters behind. I won’t go into details, obviously, but what’s striking is how the series more than most is very much a character study, and (though the mangaka professes this isn’t always the case) how meticulously well-planned out it seems to be (I’ve said that the perfect audience for Baby Steps would be Ei-chan, which is all the more reason to believe there’s some of his qualities in the mangaka). As much as the main character has changed and grown, he’s remained very much himself – the seeds of what makes Ei-chan an athlete exceptional enough to build a series around are present even when he’s not much of an athlete at all.
There’s a strong sense in this episode (and I don’t think it requires a manga reader to pick it up) that things are kicking into another gear – the tennis, and the relationships. A year has passed, a milestone in itself. Ei-chan has won matches in small tournaments but not really surpassed his initial achievements. As Natchan says, if there were a “Kanagawa wall-hitting championships” Ei-chan would surely win – but tennis is not a sports of man vs. building. Ei-chan has paid his dues in perspiration, but reached the point where he needs inspiration to take the next step (one which many dedicated athletes never manage – even in a journey comprised of baby steps, some are bigger than others). The background faces of his future rivals are becoming people, with voices and personalities. And Ei-Chan and Natchan’s relationship off the court begins to directly impact his time on it. In short (not so much, sorry) it’s time to take things to the next level in every sense.
I really like Ei-chan’s first-round match in the Kanagawa Prefectural tournament, pitting him against Koshimizu Naruyuki (Shimotsuma Yomiyuki), because it really highlights just how unusual a fellow Maruo is despite his unexceptional exterior. Koshimizu certainly knows Ei-chan, despite being in a different class at his high school. He considers him an academic rival (and perhaps more), and resents the fact that Maruo’s taken up tennis at the well-respected STC, while he’s been playing on school teams since middle school. Not only that, he plays some head games before the match, both with himself and Ei-chan – but all of that is totally lost on his opponent. Ei-chan focuses on what matters, and he’s simply never had any reason to focus on Koshimizu. When Ei-chan looks at this test scores, he looks for his own name, finds it, and looks away. He knows Koshimizu goes to his school, but that’s about it – and Koshimizu, looking at this from a more conventional perspective, assumes Ei-chan is dissing him. In truth, of course, it would never occur to Ei-chan to diss anybody or even be intentionally disrespectful.
This is all directly tied into the results on the court, and how Ei-chan eventually resolves (with help) on how to solve his opponent. After a momentary puzzling over why Koshimizu seems pissed, he returns to the task at-hand – but starts the match by spraying errors all over the place. He’s “stuck” – his body tensed up and not responding as it’s supposed to. It takes three games before Ei-chan figures out that he’s not even thinking about the opponent, when in fact dissecting the opponent’s game is the heart of his entire style. The push he needs comes from a note Natchan has scribbled in Tennis Notebook #20, knowing anything she said to Maruo before the match would simply be obsessed over. The message is simple – it’s actually good to be tense during a match, but if you feel nervous, focus on the opponent instead of yourself.
This is interesting for several reasons, not least because it shows the contrast between Maruo and Natchan – diligence vs. pure instinct – quite effectively. Natchan is all about reading the situation, and it’s no coincidence that “believe in yourself” is something of a catchphrase for her. In truth, once Ei-chan focuses on the boy across the net the match itself isn’t really that much of a challenge – this is an opponent that Ei-chan can defeat (6-3, after dropping the first three games) with his “diligent and methodical” (as Miura has dubbed his style) approach. Everything in life is a problem to be solved for Ei-chan, a puzzle – and some puzzles are easier than others. The second-round opponent is likewise a straightforward challenge, and a 6-1 victory follows.
That’s great progress over the course of just a year, no doubt. But this is the puzzle Ei-chan hasn’t solved yet – beating someone he’s not supposed to beat. He’s slowly learning about the world of the elites, the top seeds who dominate the local junior circuit – boys like Takuma, the #1 seed here. There’s also the #2 seed, Araya Hiroshi (Hatano Wataru), the hulking lad in the same year as Ei-chan who’s the closest rival Takuma currently has, and Ei-chan’s next opponent – Miyagawa Takuya (Kakihara Tetsuya). Miyagawa is a nice kid, the most personable of the top seeds and someone Yukichi considers a friend. He’s a devoted baseliner who hits with two hands off both sides (rare these days, and bearing its own advantages and disadvantages). No two tennis players – like snowflakes, sports anime or main characters in such – are alike. But the special ability to figure out what makes each opponent unique is itself one of the things that makes Ei-chan unique, and one of the reasons his journey is such a fascinating one to watch. And this is the time where that journey shifts into another gear.