I made the mistake of scanning the batch of chapters that come after the (anime) current arc of Baby Steps ends, and it was a real stab in the gut. So much great stuff we’ll miss out on… Without a question the absence of Hunter X Hunter is going to leave a huge hole in my anime life, but one can look at that series ending at least knowing that it’s going out on top, and having comprehensively adapted almost the entire manga. There’s no such solace with Baby Steps – it’s stopping just before the best part (which is just before the best part, which is a trend that continues right up to the minute – it’s that sort of series).
Of course, the headline of the moment in Japanese tennis is Nishikori Kei, the character many feel served as the model for Baby Steps’ Ike Souji. Nishikori-san defied my (and just about everyone’s) expectations by stunning Novak Djokovic in 4 sets in the U.S. Open semi-finals. He seemingly caught a break, too, when Marin Cilic upset Roger Federer in straight sets in the other semi-final – robbing Fed of what might have been his last, best chance at a grand slam but ensuring that the U.S Open will have a first-time major winner and giving Nishikori an incredible opportunity. He’s already the first Japanese man to reach a grand slam final – to be the first to win would be a humongous accomplishment.
It would be nice to think that Nishikori winning at Flushing Meadows would give a boost to a manga like Baby Steps, which has the genre of realistic tennis pretty much to itself. I’m skeptical, but it’s possible – tennis itself will certainly get a major bump – but in any event it would be too late to do the anime any good. I feel on some level as if the current state of affairs is slowly transitioning me from being an anime fan first and a manga fan second to the opposite – certainly, there’s room for series like Baby Steps to succeed and be much-lauded in manga when there just doesn’t seem to be in anime. And happily, I don’t think that side of the manga business is going to change anytime soon.
So where does that leave us with two episodes to go? Basically, with Ei-chan at a nexus point in his journey. He’s reached a new plateau, having ridden his newfound fitness to his first tournament win and being invited to the Kanto Qualifier, but been given a harsh reminder of just how high the mountain he still has to climb is. Nabae is simply better than he is, and this forces Ei-chan to try and surpass his own limits. It’s an experimental process, finally setting on “64-square” control as the optimal achievable strategy to try and upset the balance of the match. But as Nabae-kun thinks, what Ei-chan is trying to do – attacking tennis through pinpoint control – is effectively the final level in tennis, something pros spend entire careers trying to perfect.
That Ei-chan is going to lose this match is hardly in doubt, and it really isn’t the crucial point. What matters is that he relentlessly pushes forward, trying everything he can, which is what he always does. But the hard part is that he loses on a bad call – a line-ball on a passing shot that would have sent Nabae’s service-game to deuce. Maruo knows deep down he’s going to lose anyway, but it’s a galling way to end things. Making matters worse is the fact that he realizes that Nabae wasn’t forced to show all his cards in holding him off – so in effect, Ei-chan has no idea just how big the gap between them might be.
Nabae represents a crucial opponent for Ei-chan in so many ways, arguably the most important in the first 100 chapters or so of the manga. It’s because Nabae is in so many ways a reflection of what Ei-chan wants to be himself – a thinking tennis player with an all-around game who outsmarts his opponent. Meeting and losing to Nabae has forced Ei-chan to a level of introspection he hasn’t reached – and this is a very self-aware young man to begin with. When he asks Nabae what his “grades” would be after the match, Nabae tells him “A” for mental fortitude, “B” for physical ability, and “B’s and C’s” for technique. Most crucially he tells Maruo – much to his dismay – “D” for strategy, but as soon as he does so Nabae realizes that isn’t right, and tells Maruo he needs to think it over. What Ei-chan did came very close to meaningfully changing the dynamics of the match – it might have with a little more time – and it was probably the only chance he had to do so.
With his own tournament over, Ei-chan turns his attention to scouting the players who’ll be crucial later but that we’ll never see in the anime. Ide-kun, he of middling technique but a beast under pressure. And Okada-kun, who mumbles to himself and relies on his powerful flat groundstrokes (which he uses to carve up poor Yukichi). But then there’ an urgent mail from Kageyama – Nat-chan is in trouble in her match against a rising star just out of middle school, Nakajou Megumi. We’ve (and Ei-chan, too) seen Nat-chan play, but never get in trouble – this will be the first time in the series we see her in a life-and-death struggle to survive. And seeing how she handles it will (like everything else) be a learning experience for Ei-chan.