I’m torn about the Baby Steps anime, though not about the show itself – I love it. But I honestly don’t know whether to feel grateful that it exists at all or cheated that it’s going to be so damn short, when so many lesser manga (though not enough on the whole, to be sure) get full adaptations. The balance tips towards gratitude because while this adaptation isn’t brilliant technically or lavishly budgeted, it’s honest and true. It’s simply going out and faithfully adapting one of the best sports manga ever, nothing fancy at all – just communicating what’s on the page to the screen. And with a source material like Baby Steps, that’s an extremely wise choice.
This first Araya match with Ei-chan is both one of the best and most important in the manga. It reveals a lot about Ei-chan’s character as well as introducing the audience to one of the most distinctive of his opponents. As anyone who’s watched enough tennis (or boxing) could tell you, players of opposing styles often make for some of the most interesting matches to watch – not just because each is showing you a completely different sort of game, but because they’re likely forcing the other to do things outside their comfort zone.
It would be easy to dismiss this as a matchup of emotion vs. intellect, but there’s a lot more to both of these young men than that. There’s no question that Araya is a player who thrives off emotion, but as with most players of that breed it can be a double-edged sword. And Maruo himself thrives off emotion to a degree he’s not even aware of himself (though we are, as an audience). Superficially this is a mismatch in every way – Araya has the overwhelming advantage in speed, power and experience. If all Ei-chan could do was write in notebooks and make guesses based on statistical observation, he’d have no chance to overcome that.
It says a lot about Ei-chan’s long-term prospects in the game that when he’s in trouble, he takes risks – even though attacking is not stylistically natural for his tennis. Most players, including many pros, tend to play it safe when they get tight (even the greatest ever, Roger Federer, has suffered against Rafael Nadal for years because he gets conservative on big points while Rafa gets more aggressive). I find this incredibly admirable about Ei-chan and it’s one of the reasons I love the character as much as I do – he’s basically fearless. He knows his weaknesses but doesn’t obsess over them – he looks for answers wherever he can find them, and is even willing to try completely new strategies in critical situations. It takes a remarkable player to even be able to come up with new strategies at times like those, but only the rarest of those have the nerves of steel to try and implement them.
This being Baby Steps, Maruo’s progress is always measured in baby steps. A point taken on Araya’s serve, a scrabbling hold of his owns serve. He’s already down a set and a break but using his observational powers to predict Araya’s attacks and various methods both during and between (the old shoelace trick) points to slow Araya down, he gets a foothold in the match. He starts to hold his own serve a little more easily, manages to scrape a few points off Araya’s and even gets a break point he can’t convert. Araya’s legendary impatience begins to flare up, especially after he realizes that Takuma has already closed out his match. But Araya literally punches himself in the face to settle himself down (a little extreme, but not unrealistic in concept) and manages to keep his nose in front.
The great thing about a match like this is that playing Ei-chan is actually forcing Araya to mature himself. Despite looking 30 he’s 16 too, and still early on in his own tennis journey. He correctly understands the fundamental nature of the dynamic – he’s stronger, faster and has more weapons. It’s Ei-chan who must do the exceptional to beat him, not the other way around. Unlike Araya Ei-chan has no overpowering weapon he can rely on at crucial moments – all he can do is be relentless and keep forcing his opponent to make shots. Opponents like Ei-chan can be incredibly frustrating for players like Araya, but ultimately it’s even more frustrating to be in a situation where there simply aren’t enough bullets in the chamber – and anyone who’s watched David Ferrer much in grand slams could attest to that. Ei-chan understands this deficiency is something he needs to address in the long-term, but that isn’t going to help him here.
In the end, when his back is to the wall with Araya serving at 5-4, Ei-chan does what he always does – decides it’s better to take a risk than to go down playing it safe. As his coach says, the serve is a weapon to keep you from losing but the return is a shot for winning, and it’s risking everything on the return that’s Ei-chan’s only chance (he did this on a crucial point against Miyagawa, too). That means using everything he has – his statistics and his eyes – to predict where Araya is going to serve and attack with the return. That isn’t always going to work (indeed it doesn’t) but just the act of successfully doing it will severely get into an opponent’s head, which is a huge part of the battle. It’s the sort of thing you have to do when you don’t have the arsenal the other guy does, but if there’s one thing that should be clear about Ei-chan by now it’s that he’s going to exhaust every possible opportunity to try and survive. It’s one of the things that makes him one of the most likeable and interesting protagonists in sports anime.