You’ll have to forgive me, Maruo-kun, if my tennis attention is divided today. Specifically, much of it is on that hallowed hall in the OP, where the greatest player of all time is set to try and win his 8th Wimbledon and 18th grand slam title at the ripe old age of 32. It’s been two years since Roger Federer was in a grand slam final – that was also at Wimbledon, and he won it – and I view Fed finals much like I view anime like Barakamon. Better appreciate them while we have them, because I don’t know how many more we’re going to get.
That’s an appropriate place to start, because we’re at the point of the story now where for the first time Ei-chan actually has to confront the use of a very powerful word – “pro” – in reference to him. It’s very easy to believe him when he responds to Iwasa-kun’s inquiry about whether he plans to go pro by saying “I’ve never even thought about it!” And I’m sure he hasn’t – just look at the way he still reacts to his own success with a certain measure of disbelief. As well, this is a kid who very much approaches life one challenge at a time rather than thinking several moves ahead (bright as he is I suspect Maruo wouldn’t be a strong chess – or gungi – player). That’s a solid approach in most respects, but one of the lessons Ei-chan is learning is that it doesn’t always work as an athlete.
The match with Iwasa actually ends pretty quickly, and in some respects it follows the same pattern as the Miyagawa match – Ei-chan forces the issue and wins the match, but mistakenly writes it off to luck. His response to Iwasa raising the level of his game is to go aggressive, contrary to his more comfortable grinder approach – and as it did against Miyagawa, the opponent is thrown. Iwasa wants things to go his own way, even more than most – he has a very specific goal in mind and prioritizes it above all else. Maruo pushing Iwasa to another level causes Iwasa to cramp up after having been kept on the court much longer than he’s used to, almost an hour and a half. And if you’ve seen pros labor on once the cramps start, you know it’s almost always a no-win situation (though Michael Chang might beg to differ).
As usual with Baby Steps, the aftermath is as interesting as the match itself. First we see a pattern repeating itself – Ei-chan’s natural curiosity does him a great service. He seeks out Iwasa-kun to ask him about his unusual approach to the game, and is fascinated – always looking for a different way to break down a challenge. And it’s Iwasa who asks him that key question about being a pro, forcing Ei-chan for the first time to seriously think about what he wants from tennis. Iwasa also tells Maruo that he’s likely quitting the game, or at least scaling back – quite simply, because he’s not playing tennis for its own sake. He’s not passionate about the game – for Iwasa, it’s just an outlet for his creative energy.
The next opponent is a titan, both in terms of build and importance in the series – Araya Hiroshi, the towering lefty #2 seed who’s Maruo’s age but looks like his father. Here’s another opponent who plays (and lives) with a completely different style. His game is raw power and speed, and he thrives on aggression – as close to a mirror-opposite of Ei-chan as you’re likely to find. Ei-chan is clearly intimidated before he ever steps on the court – his post-match “I’ll crush you!” encounter with Araya doesn’t help – but he has good people in his corner. Natchan gives him her usual from the gut wisdom – never feel guilty about winning. It’s only disrespectful to the opponent and yourself, and if you’re serious about the game you understand just how precious every win is.
Miura-kantoku chimes in with his usual seasoned advice as well, when he sees Maruo trying to work himself up to facing Araya using Araya’s own style. If you want to beat someone better than you don’t focus on their strengths, focus on their weaknesses – it sounds simple from an outside perspective, but it can be easier said than done. You can see in Miura’s eyes that he’s getting excited about the possibilities for Ei-chan – the metaphor he uses is that he’s putting the puzzle together piece by piece. And of course, with every section of the puzzle you finish, the rest of it gets that much easier to figure out. It’s a suitable metaphor for a player who thinks like Maruo does, driven by the urge to puzzle out every opponent, and himself.
As is so often the case, each of these arcs within arcs of Baby Steps is about a baby step – a new paradigm to be considered. Every rung of the ladder Maruo climbs, he confronts a new obstacle in his path, because the higher you want to climb in a sport the less room there is for uncertainty or weakness. This idea of “going pro” – what it means, why a person wants to do it, and what that means for their life – is certainly a crucial one for an athlete at the stage of development where we find Ei-chan here. Can a player who plays tennis for fun or for fitness beat a player of similar or better ability who wants to devote their life to it? As always Ei-chan confronts the question by asking questions – of Natchan, why she wants to go pro. And of Takuma, what Araya’s weaknesses are. But the answers are for another time – and they have to be earned on the court.