Tennis, like all sports, has a good number of peculiarities about it. I personally don’t think there’s another sport that so heavily centers on the battle of minds and wills that takes place in every competitive match, and I think more than with almost any sport you don’t have to have played it competitively to recognize that – it comes across quite plainly in watching two great players square off on television. There’s an ebb and flow to every match, and the swing of momentum from one side to the other is quite palpable. That’s one of the things about the game that makes it so fascinating for me.
It’s only natural, then, that Baby Steps – which dissects the nature of competitive tennis so comprehensively, should often focus on this side of the game. We’ve had episodes that focus on the battle that takes place before a match even starts – Maruo trying to find his best frame of mind and be prepared for what his opponent will throw at him – and matches like this one which focus on the direct confrontation between the lines. Araya is an opponent that’s an order of magnitude above anyone Maruo has faced before, and the same sorts of tricks aren’t going to be enough against him.
I think once could be forgiven (as Ishruns did several weeks ago in the comments) for seeing something of Rafa Nadal in Araya Hiroshi. I confess it never struck me that way in the manga, but watching Araya come alive in the anime it’s inescapable. That helicopter finish (technically the “reverse finish”) on the lefty forehand, generating incredible topspin. The artillery-bunker physique, the incredible court coverage, the raw intensity which tends to dominate his opponents mentally, even the slow starts typical of a player who uses his own emotion to work himself up to his highest level. The kid is, quite simply, a beast.
Watching Araya and Ei-chan play it’s hard not to have the “Man vs. Boy” notion in your head, despite the fact that both are the same age. Araya looks older, packs on far more muscle, and has far more experience – he’s the embodiment of the modern “power and speed” school of tennis that Yukichi describes, the one practiced at Araya’s GITC (and indeed, it is patterned after overseas – mostly U.S. – academies like Nick Bolletieri’s that use it as a cost-effective way to level up their players en masse and filter out the few worthy of specialized instruction). But Araya is more complicated than that – in this series everyone is more complicated than that – and he has his peculiarities about him. Ei-chan has witnessed him telling Takuma that he’ll abandon the idea of going pro if he loses to him in this tournament (never mind that both of them still have a match to win first). It’s clear that Takuma has been the bane of Araya’s tennis existence for a very long time, so the obsession is easy enough to understand.
Takuma giving Ei-chan advice about Araya’s weaknesses should be a no-brainer – can you imagine someone from the Shiranami Society in Chihayafuru not sharing their advice about how to beat a rival from another Karuta society in a key match? But this being Takuma he has to couch it in selfish terms – if Ei-chan wins, he’d be a much easier opponent in the final than Araya. One could psychoanalyze Takuma all day here, but whatever his true reasons are for helping Ei-chan is in no position to turn down whatever help he can get, and he walks away with a few key nuggets of information. Araya is a slow starter. He likes to play fast. He’s quick-tempered and impatient. He likes to use angles, so hit deep down the middle. Do the unexpected, and be prepared to be blown off the court sometimes. And above all, wear him down.
The result of all this is a good start for Ei-chan – he breaks in the first game, and goes up 30-0 in his first service game (even employing an underhand – though not underhanded – serve). But here Araya uses some mind games of his own – he argues a call he knows is right because he wants to break up Ei-chan’s momentum and work himself up. Is it gamesmanship? Is Ei-chan using his full time between points playing with his strings gamesmanship? Yes – but this is a game, after all, and this is a very legitimate part of it. As his friends and coach look on (Kageyama is still Quixotically trying to keep Sasaki-san’s hopes alive) Araya seizes control of the match, and even when Ei-chan realizes that his opponent is a relatively simple puzzle to solve he’s still not able to use that knowledge to win points.
This is what Baby Steps is all about – Maruo hitting a wall when what he knows isn’t enough, and trying to figure out how to breach it. Opponents like Araya are among the toughest to face – you throw everything you have at them to win a point and they win the next with one unreturnable shot, you see what they’re about to do but still can’t stop it. It points up Ei-chan’s desperate need to develop real weapons of his own (like a serve he can steal cheap points with), but the only thing he has at his disposal in the moment is his persistence and his analytical genius. We know he has plenty of both, but this a challenge unlike any he’s faced on the court.