I’m kind of waiting (though who knows, maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised) for an avalanche of criticism for this episode of Baby Steps because Maruo won his match with Miyagawa. On one level I’d understand it, but I think it would spring mostly from too much conditioning to expect asspulls and WSJ moments from sports anime, and it would miss the point just as surely as most of the criticism of various aspects of Hunter X Hunter’s “Chimera Ant” arc misses the point of what Togashi is trying to do.
There’s one moment in this episode that absolutely stands out as the crucial one for me, and it comes when Miura-kantoku tells the three seeded and experienced players standing next to him “If you want to learn how to play someone who’s better than you, I think you should all be watching this match closely.” The context is a comment from Takuya – one I’d call a grudging compliment – that the reason Maruo is tough is because he “has no pride”. He’s willing to copy what he sees in other players and use it himself to try and win a match, to try things merely for the sake of trying something different to keep his opponent off balance. It’s most pointed for Takuya, of course, given the implied reference to his own drubbing at the hands of Ike Souji, but the words are not only addressed to him.
The key here is this: “someone who’s better than you”. Nowhere is Miura denying that Miyagawa is the better player – in fact I’m dead-certain that on this day Ei-chan wouldn’t deny it himself. But Ei-chan wasn’t figuring out how to be a better player than Miyagawa – he was figuring out a way to beat him. In sports, the better player (or team) doesn’t always win, and there’s no shame in being the lesser victor as long as it’s done within the rules and without resorting to tactics that are unethical even if they’re legal. The point in tennis is to win – artistic impression is for figure skating and synchronized swimming.
In the same way Maruo is pretty much a parent’s dream as teenagers go, he’s also a coach’s dream and we’re starting to see why. He listens, he takes instruction without letting his pride get in the way, he works his ass off. But most importantly, when the coach can no longer guide him he coaches himself. Ei-chan never stops observing and never stops thinking about what he’s observed. In this match he’s realized the limits of his all-rounder style that depends on court coverage and limiting errors, and he’s actually started taking risks. More than that, he’s actually started to react instinctively, because he realizes that if things follow in predictable fashion, he’ll lose. Miyagawa is the better player, and the only way Ei-chan can win is by upsetting the proper order of things however he can.
As I’ve been mentioning for the last couple of weeks, this match is a major, major moment in Ei-chan’s journey. It isn’t so much an evolution of his skills, because he basically bought himself new lives time after time by changing his tactics and surprising his opponent (who was expecting a very predictable performance from “Notebook-kun” – thus his own patient and conservative game plan). Those kinds of tactics (like Takuya’s feint at a serve-and-volley, only to put away the resulting short ball off the ground) have a short shelf-life (especially as other seeders take notice of you) and are no replacement for developing a true arsenal of offensive weapons. Rather, the key was in the realization that he’d gone as far as his preferred, natural style could take him – and that he still wanted to rise higher anyway. Playing to his strengths got Maruo’s foot in the tennis door, but he has to now play to his weaknesses to break it down. And he’s started doing so with this match.
Of course, as any aspiring athlete will tell you that’s when things start to get really hard. But in dramatic terms that’s when things start to get really fascinating, and the best parts of Baby Steps spring from Ei-chan’s efforts to understand his own limitations and surpass them. That’s why this victory was the very antithesis of an asspull – rather, it was a systematic and realistic portrayal of how someone can be weaker than his opponent and still win. Rapid-fire adjustments, courage (like the decision to serve-and-volley in the first place, and to guess against Miyagawa’s serve on match point to try and hit a winner), and plain old luck – like the final shot of the match.
Tiebreakers in tennis are a nightmare for exactly the reasons we saw here – a guy who’s been dominating on his serve for the entire match can lose to a guy who’s barely been holding, simply on the basis of one or two points going against him. But one thing you see in tennis, even among the pros, is that when things get tight some players have a tendency to dial it back and play very safe, while others crank it up and go for it. Usually it’s the latter who’re rewarded, as we saw here when Maruo’s tactic of running around his forehand on Miyagawa’s serve – though it failed – led directly to a double-fault on the next point. This is what I love about Ei-chan – he doesn’t play cheap head games with his opponent, but his relentlessness and savvy end up having the same effect as if he did. There can be few greater compliments in tennis than to have your opponents say “I hate playing against that guy”, and Ei-chan is fast becoming the sort of player for which that phrase was invented.