The Florida Arc is one of my favorites from the Baby Steps manga, but there’s no denying it’s nice to see familiar faces again. We may have taken a break from some of the storylines back in Chiba, but it’s the nature of this series that things are never stagnant – they move forward all the time because people (especially people the age of the major characters in this series) change all the time. And the Maruo who comes back from America isn’t the same kid as the one who left, either on or off the court.
One of my favorite things about Aoi-coachie is that he significantly narrows the focus of Ei-chan’s development as a tennis player (and not just as a tennis player). Miura was the right fit to begin the journey, and the lessons he teaches Ei-chan are one he needs, but they’re mostly focused on the basics of tennis and what it means to try and compete seriously. Aoi-chan’s approach is much more systematic: he has he advantage of being handed a product that’s already in development. He can isolate a single element of Ei-chan’s game (or his life) and set about showing his student how it impacts his potential future in the sport.
(Re)Enter Takuma, who hasn’t been too much of a factor in the story for a while. Takuma has his own arc here of course, as the physically gifted power player who’s always trying to shoulder the burden of that dreaded word “potential”. But he’s a very important part of Ei-chan’s arc too, and it was really Takuma who set the initial target for Ei-chan to shoot for. And it’s not only tennis in which these two compete – there’s Natchan as well. And all of this ties into Takuma’s sense of frustration at forever being eclipsed despite starting out in the lead.
It’s not as though there was really any doubt that Ei-chan and Natchan had feelings for each other, but their short separation has the effect of confirming it. This is rather vexing for Takuma, who’s known her for ten years (though she considered Ike her “closest friend“). Unfortunately for Takuma there’s never really been any indication (apart from that troll “kiss”) that Natchan has feelings for him, but she openly admits (in response to his question) that she “likes” Ei-chan. Having been passed once already by Ike Souji as a player, Takuma now stares down the possibility of being passed by Ei-chan both on and off the court.
There’s a plan behind Aoi’s order to Maruo to challenge Takuma, though Takuma’s irritation is probably why he accepts. This is a perfect opportunity to level-check the progress Ei-chan has made, obviously, but for Aoi-san there’s a larger purpose here – to illustrate to Ei-chan what he’s lacking in a very specific part of the game. Anyone who follows tennis knows what a hue advantage a big serve is – all those free points make a huge difference over the course of a match. And as the guy with the best serve in Japan (it’s already carried Takuma to #500 in the world), Takuma is the perfect means by which to deliver the lesson.
This isn’t a simple matter, of course – Takuma is a lot bigger and stronger than Ei-chan for one thing, and pros have to deal with the restrictions their physical limitations put on them all the time. But Aoi-san knows his pupil well – this is a lesson he wants Ei-chan to learn for himself by sheer practical experience, and he knows that’s exactly what’s going to happen. He stops the match before Ei-chan can injure himself trying to adjust his serve too much on the fly, but the mission has been accomplished – though I’m sure for the two guys involved in the match, there’s a strong sense of unfinished business.