Sorry to say (well, not all that sorry) this is one of those Baby Stepisodes that just make me want to gush. When the series is this good (and it’s this good more and more as the manga goes on) it brings out the fanboy in me, and I cheer for the it the same way I do for the Cubs or the Bulls – I’m a fan in every sense of the word. It’s such a beautifully constructed work of fiction – from a character (and sports) sense, almost “more real than real” in the same way the art of Shinkai Makoto is in the visual sense. It’s not a documentary, just like a Makoto background isn’t a photograph – but they’re like a distilled essence of reality, the important truth of it freed of the bonds of the literal.
It all starts with Ei-chan of course, and I’m honestly not sure how you could come up with a better sports protagonist. I just don’t know how you can not root for the guy, because he’s all about integrity and grit and respect, and completely lacking in ego and pettiness. Stubbornness can be a flaw, certainly, but Ei-chan illustrates all the positive aspects of that trait. He simply refuses to accept an unfavorable situation – his restless mind is always looking for some solution, and always believing there’s a solution for every challenge. It’s not conceit – the kid is clearly aware of his own limitations – but a simple overabundance of doggedness and sheer will.
The other remarkable aspect of Maruo is of course that preternatural self-awareness – and Baby Steps really builds around it as the central pillar of the series. What we’re seeing now is only the tip of the iceberg, but I think that makes sense because Maruo is still a kid, and a veritable toddler when it comes to tennis. Yet I think it’s that which makes sports such a natural fit for him – it’s a perfect outlet for his never-ending drive for self-analysis and problem solving. And tennis perhaps most of all (I’m biased, I admit) is the perfect sport to test one’s limits and force oneself to dig deep for answers. In that respect Maruo truly is a tennis genius, but not in the Shounen Jump sense of having secret moves and special powers – he’s simply got the perfect mind to deconstruct both the game and his place in it.
That makes Ei-chan a very dangerous opponent for “better” players, especially at the levels he’s playing at now. But as I said last week, if I were a struggling up-and-coming pro he’s exactly the opponent I would want to face, and I think we see Alex coming to the same conclusion. You can see elements of a lot of other things in tennis – the chess match, where each side must counter the moves of the other, and consider what impact they’ll have several moves ahead. The boxing ring, where you have to trade blows with an opponent and face a choice of whether to try and dominate with sheer power, or rely on tactics and dexterity. Ultimately this sport is mental as much as physical (though the physical side of it is sure critical, as we’re reminded at the close of Ei-chan’s match with Alex).
Both sides certainly learned a lot from this one – not just the young amateur, but the pro too. Both adjusted to stay a step ahead of the other during the match, but it seems to me as if it was always Ei-chan starting the next cycle – Alex forced to react to what Ei-chan did. By deconstructing Alex’ weak backhand Ei-chan forced the pro to go outside his comfort zone – but to his credit, Alex did do that, and with enough skill to seize the upper hand. That running-around-the-backhand routine is something you see the pros do, all the way up to Federer himself – yes it leaves your forehand side open, but in effect it dares your opponent to try and hit there. What Alex was doing during that second set was, effectively, going off-model – giving Ei-chan looks that weren’t in his notebooks. He’s a pro – he’s got enough skills to do that.
Where what Ei-chan does becomes remarkable is the third set, where he relies not on what he’s written down, but on what it suggests might be coming next. The boy who couldn’t stop looking at his racket when he hit is now realizing that he has to watch his opponent and react, trust his instincts. It’s not shutting off his brain, bur rather trusting it – his thoughts and research are still telling him what to do, but it’s happening in real-time. Yes, it’s another of those baby steps (I believe Alex’ note is the first time the narrative itself has used the term) but an important realization.
Another important realization – maybe even a wake-up call – for Ei-chan is the cramp he suffers on match point (his) in the third-set tiebreaker. If you watch enough tennis you’ll see guys suffer terrible cramps late in matches, and it can make agonizing yet thrilling viewing (famously, Michael Chang won the French Open final over Ivan Lendl – at 17 – while crippled by leg cramps). Ei-chan did exactly what you have to do when that happens – try and hit an immediate winner, then limp to the net. And of course he knew the coach would kill the match as soon as he realized what was happening, but as rational as he is Ei-chan didn’t want to see a great battle end that way. And by forcing his opponent to try and hit a winner under pressure, Ei-chan won the match – and his coach’s ire.
This may have been a practice match, but it was an important one. Ei-chan played his “best tennis ever” playing against a pro, a stronger opponent who forced him to level-up to survive. As always, there are lessons to be learned, and this boy doesn’t forget. The Florida arc thus ends, a brief one, but one where Baby Steps itself leveled-up I think. This is really where we see Ei-chan begin to see tennis as not just a sport, a challenge, but – potentially – a life. And though it was only a month’s worth of episodes, it was kind of emotional seeing hm say goodbye to this group of friends (Marcia even shed a few dere tears for him). Fortunately for Ei-chan – and for us – this journey has really just gotten started.