That episode seemed to last about eight minutes, in the way these kinds of episodes often do in sports series. And as is so often the case, the most powerful matches can be the ones that result in losses, not the ones that result in wins. I’ve rooted for Roger Federer in every match he’s played against Rafa Nadal, but I’m not sure I’ve ever appreciated one of his rare wins as much as I did his marathon loss to Nadal in the 2008 Wimbledon final, his heroic comeback from two sets down ending in almost complete darkness on Centre Court.
It’s safe (in the non-spoiler sense of “safe”) to say that the issues raised in Maruo’s rematch with Araya will be revisited, because there are no throwaway moments in Baby Steps. Stuff that happens happens for a reason. But for now, it was the match itself that mattered, and it was certainly one of the best of the series. As is usually the case with sports anime, having an opponent who’s both clearly worthy and at least somewhat sympathetic makes the drama that much more intense. And Araya is a perfect foil for Ei-chan at this stage of his journey – but no less than Ei-chan is also the perfect foil for Araya.
After this match, Miura-kantoku tells Maruo that he’s “clearly improved the most of anyone in Kanagawa” – that he’s astonished at how much Maruo has closed the gap. Miura is a no BS guy and he means what he says here, but it strikes me that if Maruo had been playing the same Araya he lost to six months earlier, Maruo would have won this time. Araya (in no small measure because of that earlier match) has grown, too. He’s tamed his demons and learned to channel his intense emotions in a positive direction. He’s learned to be patient and use the opponent’s weaknesses against him.
And make no mistake, Ei-chan has weaknesses – and quite literally too. He’s simply not as strong and fast as a guy like Araya, and as a kid who’s played exclusively junior events and mostly local ones, he has little experience in three-set matches. Unfortunately for Maruo it seems Kanto applies the same final-set rule as three of the four Grand Slams (the U.S. Open being the exception) and the Davis Cup – no decisive-set tiebreakers. Ei-chan would certainly have a better chance in a tiebreaker than he does needing to break Araya to win – and the longer the match goes on, the more the edge swings to the stronger, more experienced southpaw.
I love the way this endgame plays out, because it really showcases both boys at their best. Ei-chan is in trouble, but he’s so self-aware that he understands what’s happening to him even as he’s unable to prevent it. His body is exhausted and, because he’s been forced to think his way through the entire match to survive, his mind is even more so. As Kageyama-kun observes, this is Ei-chan at his best, because he’s finally found a calling that allows him to go all-out – to express the relentless drive and determination that makes him special. And Araya realizes what’s happening, swallows his pride and does exactly what he should – he starts playing more conservatively, trying to foil Ei-chan’s strategy of (by necessity) ending points at quickly as possible by going for high-risk attacks.
But this is what’s really so admirable about Ei-chan – even as his body and mind give out, rather than give himself a safety net on the biggest points (even when Araya expects him to), he goes for more. That’s the quality that’s going to make him a great tennis player, because it’s so rare not even all great tennis players have it. Watching all this is old friend Iwasa-kun, who’s left the game to pursue the art that’s his real passion – but even Iwasa-kun finds new passion for tennis in watching Ei-chan leave everything on the court in trying to perform a miracle. He may not have won the match, but this tournament was still a victory for Ei-chan – a baby step, maybe, but one of the biggest he’s taken so far.