Opposite styles almost always make for interesting matchups in a sport like tennis. Most of the great rivalries have featured two players who go at the game in very different ways. In the old days that usually meant a serve-and-volley player versus a baseliner – think McEnroe vs. Connors or Sampras vs. Agassi (two instances which benefited from the baseliner being among the greatest returners in tennis history). Nowadays style differences usually manifest in different ways (Nadal vs. Federer being a good example) but the principle still usually holds true.
It’s obviously a pretty lucky break for Maruo to have played that practice match against Nat-chan – except that wasn’t actually luck at all, but foresight on the part of Aoi-kantoku. In Ide-kun we have what’s pretty much the male version of Nat-chan on the tennis court, with a large dose of goofiness and showmanship thrown in. Like Nat-chan Ide Yoshiaki is a feel player – rather than take the analytical approach he instinctually reacts to what the opponent is doing and feeds off the emotion of the crowd (and his own). He even thinks in free-form style, breaking down his shots into baby-talk sound effects. Yes, players like him definitely exist (a couple of the best French players tend to utilize this style) and they can rise to very high levels in tennis.
It’s tempting to dislike Ide-kun, and I can definitely see where I would really hate playing against him. As an opponent, he’s a highly irritating guy. But I don’t think he’s got an ounce of malice in him – he’s just a kid who loves the big moment and has a flair for the dramatic. And the entourage he brings with him isn’t really his fault either – he’s just a charismatic guy, and crowds love to watch players like that (even Aoi-san admits he’s fun to watch).
So for Ei-chan, this match really boils down to his ability to block out distractions and focus on the moment and the opponent at-hand. He’s not playing against Ide’s friends or the hostile crowd, just the kid himself. And the first few games of the match show with crystal clarity that Ei-chan has officially reached the status of elite player. He’s hitting harder, heavier shots, and he’s adjusting more quickly than ever. Ide’s unorthodox style doesn’t really throw him for long, and he manages to stay one step ahead of the opponent. After four games Ei-chan is already up two breaks, and scored one knockdown (courtesy a drop shot and the net) and a time violation warning against Ide-kun.
There’s one hugely important difference between this match and the one with Nat-chan, of course. This time around Maruo-kun doesn’t have a big advantage in raw power and speed – simply getting used to Ide’s style isn’t going to be enough. If Ei-chan has reached the level of the national elite, Ide was already there, and by the time he holds serve in the fifth game it’s clear he’s starting to get a feel for Ei-chan’s tactics. So from here on it’s a chess match of sorts, with Ei-chan needing to apply the lessons of the Nat-chan match and take them to the next stage – not to mention deal with the circus atmosphere and what it will do for Ide’s level. On that score, I sure wish Kageyama and Iinchou-san (I can sort of understand Aoi-san and coach’s decorum) would pick up their game – if they’re massively outnumbered by Ide supporters, they should be the loudest pair in the grandstand to make up for it. Every little bit helps…