Once more in watching Baby Steps, I’m struck by how much Ei-chan as a player is reminiscent of Greg Maddux – not only one of the greatest pitchers of all-time, but possibly the cleverest. This was a topic of discussion in the comments for Episode 10 of the first season, and I think it’s even more on-point now. I remember Maddux saying (guys like Tony Gwynn and Jeff Bagwell basically confirmed it) that once, when he was pitching with a big lead, he threw a meatball to a guy and effectively let him hit a home run, knowing that it was a pitch and a sequence he’d never use in a competitive situation. He just wanted to plant false information in the opponents’ heads and give them something extra to think about the next time he faced them.
Now, that’s something I can easily see Maruo doing – and in fact, we see a twist on it in this match with Araya. What matters is not only the point being played, it’s also what impact it will have on all future points. Like all pitchers without great fastballs, Maruo has to win by mixing up his speeds and spins – for example using a drop shot not just when he needs to, but even when he might be able to win the point more easily with a deep crosscourt approach and put-away volley. A guy like Maruo (or Maddux) can’t ever become predictable. If you have the raw power to blow players off the court like Stan Wawrinka or Robin Soderling, you can beat anybody on any given day without deception. But Maruo doesn’t have that kind of raw power.
I think there’s a reason chess is probably the sport most commonly referenced when describing other sports, tennis not least of them. If you’re watching the NBA finals, you’re seeing each team make game-to-game adjustments, forcing the other team to move their pieces in response. It’s the really great coaches who can adjust on the fly, and it’s the really great tennis players too – the ones who can tactically reassess in the moment and tweak their strategy as a result. Obviously Ei-chan is one of the best at that, but Araya himself has come a very long way in that regard.
A classic example of this is the way Maruo tries to defend Araya’s wide serve in the ad court. As I mentioned last week there’s no “solution” for this problem – this is an advantage southpaws have been riding to great success since long before Rafa Nadal. Sacrifices have to be made, just like in chess where sometimes one might have to give up a pawn or greater piece in service of the ultimate goal, the endgame. By standing extremely wide in the ad court, Maruo obviously gives Araya the chance to ace him down the middle – but that’s a good trade-off for him. The serve Araya wants to hit is that big sweeper out wide, and by moving into the doubles alley Maruo is forcing Araya to go away from his strength, his preferred attack. He’s also forcing him to think about something that he normally does automatically.
It’s quite fitting that Araya internally thanks Ei-chan for being the perfect opponent, because as I’ve mentioned, if you’re observant and self-aware, playing Ei-chan is the perfect way to identify your weaknesses. I think a case can be made that Araya’s last match with Ei-chan (which he won in straight sets, though uncomfortably) was the impetus for his to reassess how his impatience and temper was hurting him on the court. When a bad call goes against him in this match, he swallows his bile, lets out a bellow and moves past it – which the old Araya would never have done. As anyone who watched the likes of Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe play would tell you, emotion on the tennis court is a double-edged sword. There are guys – like Araya – who thrive on it. And when they channel it properly it can spur them to new heights – a danger Ei-chan clearly recognizes in facing Araya.
The method by which Ei-chan scratches his way to a win in the second set is basically Maddux in a nutshell – he manages to always stay one move ahead of his opponent and keep him off-balance. In tennis all you need is one break if you can make it hold up, and Ei-chan does here – in fact all he needs is one break point. But this new Araya isn’t thrown off by losing a set – he seems to relish the challenge, in fact, and knows he goes into the final set with a huge advantage both in terms of big-match experience and physical strength. Meanwhile Natchan has made quick work of her own final (6-2, 6-0) and arrives on the scene to share a look with Ei-chan in which each of them clearly understands what the other’s situation is without a word having to be spoken. It’s nice to have that kind of support, but the nature of tennis is such that once the match starts you can’t rely on anyone but yourself – and no one can help Ei-chan climb this mountain now but himself.