You have to feel a little sorry for Nishimura Kouji, Araya-kun’s kouhai at his tennis club and Maruo’s first-round opponent in the Kanagawa Junior. Araya surely meant well with his answers to Kouji’s inquiry about wha kind of player Maruo was – and Kouji did ask, after all. “Defensive-minded”, Araya says, and “serves are nothing special”. One might point out that Maruo came awfully close to beating Araya, but that description was pretty accurate – at the time the two played their match.
The problem, of course, is that a single scouting report is a snapshot, and a snapshot captures only one specific moment in time. And no one in this series is evolving as fast as Ei-chan, who took up the game extraordinarily late and learns extraordinarily fast. The pace of improvement is becoming a major theme in Baby Steps – what’s necessary to survive as a legitimate prospect to go pro, and how Ei-chan differs from the run of the mill junior player.
The Kanagawa tournament is a crucial moment in this series, because it’s the first stage in a feeder system of events leading up to the All-Japan Junior – the event Ei-chan has promised his parents he’ll win or else give up on being a pro. Only the top 16 from the Kanagawa Junior get an invite to the Kanto junior, which is the qualifying event for the All-Japan. Top 16 doesn’t sound so hard, but Ei-chan hasn’t played enough events to climb high enough in the rankings to receive a top seed. That means a brutal draw, facing the #3 Minagawa-kun in the second round – the round Ei-chan must clear in order to qualify for the Kanto Junior.
Miyagawa-kun is a familiar figure, of course – he’s the boy Maruo beat for the biggest win of his young career at the time. Nishimura Kouji is the first round opponent, but it’s Miyagawa who’s the real concern. Both he and E-chan steamroll through the first round, bageling their overmatched opponents. Not only is this the first part of the All-Japan qualifying process, it’s also the first time Ei-chan has taken the court in official matches since his transformation at the hands of Aoi-kantoku (and Florida) began. And the change is immediately obvious – even Maruo is taken aback by the weight and pace of his groundstrokes, and his serve is starting to evolve into what he needs it to be – a weapon that can earn him free points in every service game.
If it’s obvious that Ei-chan has thoroughly leveled up, it’s less so with Miyagawa. He’s the third seed after all – he should be dominating first-round opponents. But the truth is that losing to Ei-chan – a complete unknown – sparked a crisis of confidence in Miyagawa despite his cheerful visage at the time. His problem is a common one in men’s tennis at the highest levels – he’s basically a counter-puncher, a defensive specialist. And when he tries to change to a more attacking style his game suffers – badly. Unlike Maruo Miyagawa has been at this a long time, and he provides an interest contrast in terms of the two boys’ relative capacity to improve, though he’s certainly found some ways to try – with the support of his senpai Oobayashi (who was Ei-chan’s first-ever official opponent).
Again, this is a theme on the ascendancy at this stage of Baby Steps‘ story – what it means to try and improve, and what’s required if one truly believes they can reach the highest levels of the game. And while this is primarily Ei-chan’s story – perhaps as much as any sports manga is the story of its protagonist – there are many others stories that are important. Not just in their own right, but for how they reflect on Ei-chan’s journey.