“The problem for Maruo is that in looking at Nabae he’s not really seeing his reflection, but himself a year from now – someone who’s had a lot more time and experience to hone that style to its current fine sharpness.”
Nabae, this week:
“Maruo-kun is just like me. But he’s not like who I am now. He’s like the way I used to be, when I devoted so much time to mastering fundamental tennis.”
As with Ciel and the most recent Kuroshitsuji episode and prior post, it’s really two ways of saying the same thing – and the fact that ithe truth comes through so clearly in both cases is indicative of how well-written the manga are. The truth is that there’s simply no substitute for experience – there are work-arounds, and massive levels of talent helps, but ultimately experience brings certain advantages that can’t be achieved through any other means. It’s one of the frustrating realities of life, and certainly of sports.
In tennis terms, Maruo is proof that thinking is a good thing – it’s allowed him to progress remarkably far in a year and small change. But at some point you have to do the things you do via second-nature, not conscious thought, and that’s where Nabae is now – he doesn’t need to think about the things Maruo does because his body has learned to do them automatically. Nabae can concentrate on picking apart his opponent block by block, and there’s nothing (for now) that Maruo can do about it. In many respects, Nabae-kun is the worst possible opponent he could have drawn.
If there’s any matchup in Baby Steps that epitomizes what the series is truly about, I’ve always felt this one comes pretty close. I keep going back to the truth-in-advertising aspect of the title – this series is about making small, incremental progress via hard work and resourcefulness. In many respects Baby Steps is the anti-sports manga, because it offers no quick fixes or special moves (in fact, it’s the lack of a “special move” that’s one of the biggest holes in Ei-chan’s game).
In the real world of sports, improvement comes most often from facing someone better than you and being forced to adapt to survive – it’s a kind of Darwinian effect where the really good ones respond to adversity by evolving, and the also-rans get discouraged and lose. This is the real leveling-up – having your back pushed up against the wall and pushing back. And this is a strength we see in Ei-chan, over and over – when cornered he never stops experimenting, and he becomes more aggressive in his tennis (while many, even pros, become less).
As so the “Hundred-square control” is born – a fundamental part of Ei-chan’s tennis and a style that perfectly suits his approach to the game. The other tricks haven’t done much – drop shots to lure Nabae to the net for a volleying struggle are a one-off gimmick, and Nabae is predicting Ei-chan’s moves as if he were inside his head (because earlier in his career, he effectively was). Nabae even starts serve-and-volleying to begin the second set, just to put the hammer down and try and shorten a match he’s sure he can win by attrition if necessary. Ei-chan has no single weapon he can rely on when in trouble – a kick serve, an overpowering forehand – so he decides to fall back on what he does best and put the method he’s tried only on paper into practice on the court. It’s a long shot, but he never stops being willing to take risks.
A little timely encouragement from Nat-chan doesn’t hurt (I don’t think “You can win!” counts as coaching, so he’s within the rules here) but this really comes down to Ei-chan’s resolve to try and be better than he’s ever been rather than go down quietly. It’s gripping stuff, but every compelling episode of Baby Steps is also a little bit of a heartbreaker, because it’s a reminder of how much is still to come and will never make it on-screen (but don’t worry, Prince of Tennis has 178 episodes and countless OVAs, and Teekyu just got a fourth season). But a little taste of Baby Steps’ greatness is certainly better than none at all.