There have been a few episodes of Baby Steps that have been the perfect storm – everything comes together and the result leaves you breathless and completely riveted (the way only great sports anime can). This is one of them – it’s among the very best of either season, combining all the elements that make this a superlative series. And as a bonus, the animation was top-notch, which we’ve sadly seen only occasionally from Pierrot with Baby Steps. It’s obvious that they save up their budget for a few select eps here and there – match-driven ones – and this was one of them. In addition to on-model characters and fluid movement, I loved the little touches like Ei-chan’s racket twirl when he was really in the zone against Miyagawa – it perfectly communicated that this was a player taking it to another level in terms of confidence and intensity.
Intensity was all over this episode, even though the match wasn’t especially close. We’re starting to see the new Maruo here, and he’s almost scary – a baby-faced assassin who ruthlessly attacks his opponents’ weak points. And he’s usually finding them before the opponent even knows they exist, which is doubly intimidating. This is the nature of Maruo’s potential as an athlete – he’s a genius in terms of analysis and tactics, and ruthlessly accurate in identifying his own limitations as well as his opponent’s. But he’s also fearless, a hugely important quality in tennis. When faced with intense pressure, an athlete can go two ways – they can become more conservative, or more aggressive. Maruo always chooses aggression, putting pressure on his opponent – and anyone who’s watched the litany of Nadal-Federer matches in grand slams over the last decade understands what that means.
To a certain extent, that was always true of Ei-chan. So what’s changing – the the point where he can be taking on a #3 seed at a prefectural tournament and be “clearly better” in both their eyes? I think it’s a number of things, starting with the fact that as he comes to understand tennis, he’s better able to put what his intellect tells him to strategic use. There’s the obvious matter of confidence – he simply has more belief in his own ability now, and with good reason given the rate at which he’s improving. And then there’s physicality – his body is starting to close the gap with his mind, and is better able to execute what Ei-chan knows is the best course of action.
The common denominator here is Aoi-kantoku, who’s helping Ei-chan with evert aspect of his game, mental and physical. He’s continued what Miura started in breaking down Ei-chan’s old body and building a new one – one custom-crafted for tennis success. As a player who suffered from injuries that shortened his career, he’s a perfect mentor here, as Miura-san knew. But Aoi doesn’t ignore the “whole life” aspect of youth sports (we’ve barely scratched the surface here). During the tensest moment of his match with Miyagawa, Maruo thinks back on what Aoi-san told him – “The one who’s having the most fun is usually the winner.” I absolutely love that as advice to a kid playing sports, and I wish more coaches would tell their students the same thing.
The flip-side of all of this is Miyagawa-kun, and it’s not easy to watch the way Ei-chan mercilessly dissects him. Miyagawa is a good kid, an extremely likeable boy who was incredibly gracious when Ei-chan – rather flukily truth be told – beat him a year earlier. Ei-chan isn’t the only one who feels as if his future is on the line here – Miyagawa is also dependent on making the All-Japan and playing well, and he’s already struggling with growing self-doubt. And now, he’s confronting something almost every child sports star full of optimism is forced to at some point – he’s probably just not good enough. Very few are.
It should come as no surprise that Baby Steps and Katsuki-sensei get tennis in a profound way, but it’s really obvious in episodes like this one. Having watched so many professional matches over the years a fictional one like this rings so true – stuff like the way Ei-chan unsettles and unbalances Miyagawa, throwing in serve-and-volleys at just the right moment and proving that he can cope with Miyagawa’s new favorite weapon (a drive volley is a bit of a gimmick shot, really). Confidence is such a huge part of the equation in tennis, and you can see Miyagawa quaver when it seems that Ei-chan has an answer for everything he does. Once a player has decided his opponent is simply better than he is, it’s almost impossible to climb out of that hole, and indeed it was only Oobayashi-sempai’s intervention (which would have been illegal coaching in America – I don’t know if it’s illegal in Japan) that prevented a complete whitewash.
I think the most important takeaway here is that even after Oobayashi did speak up and Miyagawa righted the ship, it still didn’t fundamentally change the nature of the match – Ei-chan broke serve again and finished it off 6-2. He truly was the better player, and after the way the match ended he knows that for certain. It was high drama all the way, beautifully scripted and beautifully drawn and animated, too. I love the way that in this episode the past, present and future were all prominently on-display – this is not a static story after all, but a long journey. Great sports anime always treats not just the protagonist’s story as important, but the opponent’s too, because they each have something to tell us about the experience of being an athlete. Baby Steps sually gets all of these things right, but rarely is it so obvious as it was this week.