I can’t really write a Baby Steps post on this of all Sundays without acknowledging the events at Wimbledon, and not the ones in the OP either. It was another heartbreaking final Sunday in London as Roger Federer once again fell short against Novak Djokovic. Roger seemed to be playing much better this year than last – his semi-final against Murray was an epic performance – but once again he fails to land his 18th Grand Slam. As ageless as he looked through the Murray match, you can’t help but think he’s running out of chances.
On the opposite end of tennis’ career spectrum is Maruo, half Roger’s age and fighting just for the opportunity to be a pro. Before that quest begins, though, there’s the morning after the night before to deal with, and Nat-chan wastes no time in sharing the news that she and Ei-chan are now a couple. Some have the understandable, “What – you mean you haven’t been one all along?” reaction, but for others the official announcement is a fairly big deal – especially given the timing.
The one who’s going to be hit the hardest by that news, though, won’t arrive until the second day, and before that there’s the matter of a first-round match. The opponent is Yakabe Tadanori, the #36 ranked junior in Kanto, and he presents a bit of a problem for an opponent in juniors who loves preparation as much as Ei-chan does – he’s had a massive growth spurt since the match Ei-chan watched on tape, and transitioned from being a defensive baseliner to a part-time serve-and-volleyer who comes over his backhand fairly often.
Growth spurts are an occupational hazard in boys’ tennis (this years Wimbledon Boys’ champ has shot up to 6’10”) but the real point of this match is to show just how quickly Ei-chan can adjust now. Once he sees that his template on Yakabe-kun is off it takes a couple of games for Ei-chan to adjust, but he soon realizes that all the recent changes in his opponent’s game have left him vulnerable – he’s not comfortable at the net, not moving that well, and he’s reluctant to hit anything but a slice off his backhand when he’s pressured. Ei-chan does what Ei-chan does – he isolates vulnerabilities, then relentlessly attacks them, and once the initial adjustment period is over he makes quick work of Yakabe. And every STC player manages to survive the first day.
It’s on Day 2 that the real drama begins, all of it off the court. First off, Sasaki and Kageyama arrive to cheer Maruo on in his critical second-round match (which he must win to advance to the All-Japan). Naturally, Himeko-chan is the most devastated of anyone at hearing about the happy couple – though like Kageyama, I do have to wonder how she didn’t see it coming. It’s funny how in all the time we’ve known Iinchou-san, she’a always been crushing on Ei-chan – but Kageyama has always been by her side. Kageyama is a good friend and a great wingman (for both his friends) but the guy isn’t made of stone. If you watched these events play out and thought maybe they weren’t the worst possible developments for Kageyama, you weren’t alone.
All of that takes a back seat when Typhoon Ide sweeps into Chiba. This is not a guy who’s capable of a quiet entrance, and he always seems to be at the center of the action. On his way to his second-round clash with Maruo, Ide-kun happens by an accident, where a young boy has broken his leg. He stops to help, but because Ide doesn’t do anything halfway he stays with the kid all the way to the hospital and as a result, is more than a half-hour late for his match with Maruo. Ide’s friends (he has an entire posse) are apoplectic, but Ei-chan takes the nice guy route as usual – he agrees to wait until Ide gets there to avoid seeing his opponent defaulted.
Did Ei-chan do the right thing here? I think it’s legitimate to debate that, but for my money he did – despite the importance of what he gave up in doing so. The nice guy act isn’t an act with Ei-chan, it’s just who he is, and I suspect he’d have felt entirely wrong about advancing that way. As a reward, though, he has to face by far the largest and most hostile crowd of his young tennis life – the already popular Ide having become a folk hero as his friends blab the news of what he’s done.
Ei-chan asks exactly the right question – “Isn’t this almost like a professional match?” Dealing with crowds and distracting opponents is a big part of succeeding as a professional tennis player, and learning to successfully block out a hostile audience a vital component of a player’s development (just ask Djokovic). This is just one more step for Ei-chan to take, another type of challenge to confront – it’s not remotely fair that he should have to fight the crowd when he was the good guy who made the match even possible, but fairness doesn’t enter into it. It’s all part of the deal where Ide is concerned – this is an opponent quite different from any Ei-chan has seen before, but a kind he’ll need to be able to handle if he wants to make it as a pro.