This episode of Baby Steps was awesome every day and twice on Sundays, and since it’s Sunday that means it was even more awesome. As I said last week, it was very obvious that things were kicking into another gear – that Ei-chan had reached a critical time in his development, and that things were about to change in a significant way. And this episode did a fantastic job of bringing that to life, really capturing the same inspirational tone these chapters in the manga bring to the table.
Am I biased? Of course – we’re always biased in favor of the shows we love. But for me, this ep represents everything that’s exceptional about Baby Steps specifically and sports series generally, and you can’t ask for more out of an episode of a sports anime than that. It was character-driven, with an interesting opponent and action sequences that were highly realistic. It perfectly captures the essence of why Maruo is the character he is (and for me, why I love him so much as a main character) and what makes tennis such a unique sport. And as someone who played tennis, it completely transported me to those moments on the court where you’re in the position Maruo was in against Miyagawa, to an almost eerie degree.
Of course, most of that praise is actually praise for the writing, which is basically the manga – what really pleases me is that the execution of the episode itself was excellent. The animation was quite decent by this show’s modest (let’s just leave it there) standards, the acting was spot-on, and the music placement and shot composition during the match were excellent. Tennis is a dynamic sport and thus both very difficult and potentially very exciting as a subject for anime, and in this instance I actually liked the match sequence better in the anime version than the manga (which is high praise).
One of the things you notice in Baby Steps is that people tend to be drawn to watching Ei-chan play tennis, despite his seemingly rather orthodox and not remotely flamboyant style. Part of that is simply that this is his show, of course, and the camera goes where he goes, but there’s something about his dogged, relentless tenacity that’s really compelling. Even Takuma, while he never stops putting down Ei-chan’s talent, can’t help but watch him. But there are limits to how far that can take you, and this is what Ei-chan has been learning in his last few tournaments. As Miura-kantoku says, he lacks a specialty, a winning stroke – jack of all trades, master of none. You can do things the way you’re comfortable doing them and improve consistently, up to a point – and for Ei-chan that’s repetition, analysis, and being competent in every stroke. But sooner or later you always run into someone against whom that’s just not enough.
For many reasons this match is really Ei-chan’s crucible, and his arrival. Miyagawa is a perfect opponent, both strategically and narratively. He’s not an enemy for us to hate – he’s a genuinely nice guy and a very good player who himself has gotten as far as he has through hard work, and a spirited match against a worthy opponent makes great dramatic fodder. He’s also a guy who’s clearly better than Ei-chan but not so overpowering as to make the cause hopeless – he too relies on control and consistency, but he supplements it with considerably more power and spin than Ei-chan is able to generate. He doesn’t give Maruo any easy targets to shoot at and he doesn’t bail him out with a lot of unforced errors. He’s in effect a better version of Maruo himself – which forces Maruo to evolve or face another third-round defeat. And as we see, the frustration at those defeats has been building in him to the point where he’s willing to go against his instincts, and start doing some reckless things.
As his friends and coach watch (I LOL’d at Shimono Hiro doing triple-duty here as Yukichi – very secure in his masculinity in a pink t-shirt with a heart on it – the chair umpire and Miyagawa’s dad) Maruo manages to hold serve repeatedly to take the match to 3-4, mostly through sheer persistence and by the skin of his teeth. But he’s scraping by and Miyagawa is cruising, and Maruo sees an oddity in his notes he can’t explain – his opponent is using every stroke in equal measure in his return games. The answer is obvious to the experienced players watching – Miyagawa, veteran that he is, is using his return games to take chances and analyze his opponent’s (who he’s never played) strengths and limitations – both for use in this match and potential future matches (as we see, Maruo is generating a bit of buzz by now). But Maruo being the exceptionally smart boy he is finally puts the pieces together, and realizes that he’s staring at his Waterloo with Miyagawa likely ready to move in for the kill.
Maruo takes a time violation warning here (very much in-character for this obsessively analytical kid) but crafts a desperation strategy in the heat of the moment – if he can’t beat Miyagawa off the ground, change the pace up and serve-and-volley. It’s born out of frustration at continually hitting his head on this glass ceiling and wanting to break it any way he can, and it takes guts to adopt a style he’s not comfortable with. But it’s the right thing to do, and it does something very important – it forces Miyagawa to react to him, rather than the other way around. And while there are hiccups, the same sharp eyes Ei-chan can use in rallies serve him well as he studies where his opponent is likely to try and pass him. For a game at least, he manages to throw Miyagawa off his rhythm and holds at 30 to level the match at 4-4.
My favorite part of this moment is Miyagawa’s reaction – he’s clearly surprised, but rather than get angry he smiles, and it’s not a fake smile. This is the first time in the match something genuinely surprising has happened, and Miyagawa realizes a new and interesting player has made a statement that he’s someone that bears watching. As a competitor this is welcome news, and clearly Miyagawa isn’t worried that he’s actually going to lose – it just means he has to make an adjustment now to reassert his dominance. It’s the cat-and-mouse nature of tennis, and it means Ei-chan has genuinely leveled up – the best kind of level-up, not accomplished through a “special move” but through his own persistence, cleverness and self-belief. It’s a perfect illustration of why when it comes to sports series that actually care about the sports, Baby Steps and Ei-chan are about as good as it gets.