Atsushi made a comment in the premiere about how Alex is “in another world” from the amateur players at Florida Tennis Academy. And while that’s certainly true, one could look at the events of this episode and conclude that there’s no narrower a gap between Alex and Ike Souji, despite the fact that both are professionals. And you can bet that at this point in his career, an even wider gap exists between Ike and the Rogers, Rafas and Djoke’s of the world.
There’s a very familiar pattern at play here, where Baby Steps establishes a theme that’s going to be important in the story going forward without making a big deal about it. Indeed, this episode starts out on a different track altogether, with a mix of comedy and retrospection. For the former, we have Maruo’s reaction to finding out that Marcia is only 13 (to which I can only add, it’s amazing how much younger Japanese kids – and not just kids – look than their American counterparts). That’s topped by his reaction to the “revelation” that Ike is Natchan’s fiancee. Fortunately for Ei-chan it’s just Ike being a troll as usual, but he’s not the first (or the last) to wonder about just what’s going on between the Prince and Princess of STC.
If the New Year’s Eve party is the perfect opportunity for Ei-chan to reflect back on how much he’s grown since he took up tennis, the arrival of his promised match with Ike is a perfect reminder of how much growing he still needs to do. Before the match even starts Ei-chan asks a most natural question – “what’s it like to be a pro?” – but Ike counters that he’ll only get the answer if he wins the match. The result here is predictable – Ike bagels Maruo 6-0 – but it’s not the result that really matters, it’s the reaction. As ever, the best way to improve in a sport is to suffer defeat at the hands of better players – but that requires that one be strong enough mentally to take the right lessons away from the experience.
That Ei-chan is strong mentally is pretty much a given at this point, but among the many things Baby Steps does is act as a comprehensive deconstruction of its hero’s unique thought processes and emotional development. Rather than sulk or get down on himself, Maruo’s instant reactions are telling – an anguished “I want to get better!” followed by an immediate analysis of Ike’s challenge. Why would the pro tell Ei-chan what he did when he knew full well there was no chance Ei-chan would win the match? This intellectual restlessness and thick skin is the very core of who Ei-chan is, it seems to me, and they’re awfully good qualities to have for someone who dreams of rising to the top of a sport (or any highly competitive field).
That segues directly into Ei-chan’s match with Alex on his penultimate day in Florida – possibly his last match on U.S. soil during this stay. Alex is of course a pro too, and he’s already declined the opportunity to play Maruo unless there was a specific reward attached to it. But he agrees this time, no doubt expecting a repeat of his earlier skunking. The coach declares it will be a three-set match, with Alex having a tournament coming up – a condition which surely favors the pro that much more, further stacking the odds against the amateur.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but this matchup really illustrates just why Ei-chan is such a nightmare opponent. He immediately assesses the situation with cruel detachment – “there’s no way I can match him in power, skill or experience” – and proceeds to execute a plan to turn Alex’ experience against hm. Alex has a track record, and Ei-chan being Ei-chan he’s logged it in detail. It’s not so surprising that the observant Maruo should be able to use Alex’ patterns against him for a game or two, but what is impressive is that when Alex deduces what’s going on and resolves to put a stop to it, Ei-chan reveals just how formidable his powers truly are. He’s capable of more than simply reacting to patterns he’s written in a notebook (or forty) – he can also predict what Alex will do when he decides to change up his patterns. And this has the pro truly vexed.
I’ll say this much – if I were a player in Alex’s position Maruo is exactly the guy I’d most want to face. Why? Because whatever holes I had in my game, Maruo would unerringly isolate them and point them out. Obviously Maruo winning the first set 6-2 doesn’t mean the match is over, especially as Alex is confident enough to use it as a platform to test his own strategies against Ei-chan. But it still reflects the massive difference between Alex and Ike – a player so much stronger than Maruo that patterns don’t even help the kid, and one with enough creativity not to be easily catalogued. This match is really the competition side of Baby Steps at its best – Ei-chan relying strictly on his own analytical skills and persistence to battle a player whose physical skills presently dwarf his. No Shounen Jump special moves, no secret power-ups – just grit and guile, as only a grinder like Ei-chan can bring them.