It’s interesting watching Baby Steps while one of the grand slams is going on, as the French is at the moment. The players here are obviously at a very different stage of their journey, but there are a lot of elements from the real tennis world that really ring true in Baby Steps. It’s also fun to try and pick out who Katsuki-sensei based these characters on, and with the action at Roland-Garros heating up it’s quite fitting that Ei-chan’s opponent in the finals is Araya-kun. With that build, personality and helicopter-finish on the lefty forehand, there can be no question who the inspiration for Araya is.
There’s plenty of drama in Paris – is this finally the year when the guy who’s lost one match in his entire career there finally succumbs to the hands-down best player in the world? But we have drama in Kanagawa too. The message from Maruo’s results after defeating Miyagawa is clear – this is a different player. He doesn’t just keep winning, he mows through opponents – every score is 6-1 or 6-0 until a 3 and 2 win in the quarters. It’s a great example of how important self-belief is in tennis – it’s not as though Maruo grew physically or mastered any news shots after that Miyagawa match. He simply came to understand that he was really, really good.
What follows (and what will follow, next week) is something manga readers have been looking forward to for a long time. There’s a very telling conversation between Ei-chan and Nat-chan that makes it clear just how much more experienced she is – she knows the feeling of playing matches where lives and futures are on the line, which he’s only now had his first taste of. But then Aoi-kantoku and Nat-chan’s coach Sakakibara-san (it’s actually her idea) throw a curveball – they want Ei-chan and Nat-chan to play a match.
This is a great development, for a number of reasons. First off, I love the contrast between STC and Araya’s tennis club (and indeed, most of the other teaching organizations in the series) – this place is creative and holistic in their approach to youth tennis. Mainly though, it’s great just to see these two finally face off on the court. There is a bit of tension at the beginning as Nat-chan understandably feels a bit challenged, and piqued at Ei-chan’s discomfort at the idea of playing her. But things don’t fall back into cliche, and this doesn’t cause any great rift between the two of them. Rather, it’s a learning experience, valuable because these two are indeed so different on the court. Intuitive vs. logical isn’t just a fictional construct – it’s a very real part of human development, in tennis and in life.
The contrast between Nat-chan and Maruo has been a part of Baby Steps from the beginning, of course, but it’s nice to see it explored head-on in this fashion. Nat-chan’s unpredictable style exposes a flaw in Maruo’s analytical approach (it’s grounded in the same reason professional poker players often hate playing amateurs who aren’t versed in the “proper” strategy). And for Nat-chan, playing against someone like Maruo helps her develop a different sort of self-awareness than she usually possesses – she sees her game through his eyes, and it surprises her. Maruo does win 6-1, but there’s no falling out as a result – Nat-chan understands that there’s a power gap here that’s impossible for her to overcome. These two are comfortable enough with each other to get past something like this, and it serves its training purpose. Certainly it’s a gamble to pit two teenagers in-love with each other against each other on the court, but it seems these coaches know their students well.
Awaiting in the final, though, is a formidable wall – Araya-kun. He’s a good deal better than anyone else Ei-chan has faced in the Kanagawa Junior, and determined now that Takuma is gone to finally stand atop the throne (he’s like Federer in the French in 2009, after Nadal lost to Soderling). If Ei-chan is looking for a test he’s got one – not just the top seed, but the guy who beat him comfortably a year earlier. And it’s not just a matter of pride and a trophy – as an unseeded player, Ei-chan needs all the ranking points he can get to avoid being unseeded at the Kanto Junior – where he must repeat his feat of advancing past the second round to qualify for the All-Japan Junior he’s rested all his hopes on.
Araya is a tough nut – big and fast, an attacking baseliner and a devastating topspin forehand. Physically he has no real weaknesses – it was his mental frailties that Ei-chan attacked the last time, and managed to keep the match close (for a while) in doing so. He’s improved, but this match points up another flaw with Ei-chan’s laser-like analysis and exposure of weaknesses – when he has to play the guy a second time, there’s a good chance he’s learned from what Ei-chan exposed the first time they played. That’s why I said if I were a top player in Kanto Ei-chan is exactly who I’d want to play, because if you’re willing to learn and swallow your pride, there’s no better way to find out what you need to work on. Araya is no fool, and he has a very good memory. The stage is set for the biggest match of Baby Steps so far.