I can’t really say much in reaction to that episode, except that it was just about as perfect as it’s possible for a sports anime to be. The number of levels on which it worked is pretty staggering – hell, it even got the visuals just right. In the process it revealed why this match is IMHO one of the best in the entire (translated) manga, a few dramatic missteps earlier on in the story notwithstanding. And it’s absolutely one of the most important in Ei-chan’s personal development, arguably as much as any match he’s played so far.
It sounds funny to say it, but one of the most remarkable things about Baby Steps is the way it makes me feel the same way I do watching a crucial tennis match I’m really invested in. All sports animanga should be able to do that but of course, in practice very, very few do. I love watching most sports but there’s a special kind of agonizing, gut-wrenching tension you get with tennis that’s unlike any other sport, at least for me. The gladiator aspect of it, the sheer weight of the moment being so obvious on the faces of the players, and the way watching two warriors slug it out with power and finesse is an incredibly personal experience. And that’s what watching (or even reading) the best matches in Baby Steps feels like.
Just as amazingly, this series is equally as adept at portraying what it feels like to be one of the combatants. The sheer level of pressure one feels when playing a really tight, important tennis match is hard to describe. I can’t describe it, in fact – I lack sufficient eloquence to do so – except to say, it feels like what you saw here. It’s lonely, it’s isolated – but it’s a loneliness where you feel every eye fixed on you, waiting for a mistake. And you feel the pressure of your opponent bearing down on you, desperately searching for any weakness to exploit. And in the endgame, when every point is crucial, there’s a constant awareness that any mistake can cost you everything. Now that’s pressure.
Ultimately, two things stand out above all else in making this episode one of the best sports anime has produced – the way it works equally well both emotionally and intellectually. Great matchups make great matches – it’s true in tennis, and it’s true in anime about tennis. Ide and Maruo are superbly opposite in every way, and they make perfect foils for each other. My admiration for the way Katsuki Hikaru and Murata Masahiko depict the way each of them attempts to deal with the pressure is boundless, because it’s just that good. Ide literally says “Help me, Guys” in the big moment – what he needs is the energy of the crowd to feed his own. It’s a kind of feedback loop – the louder they are the better he is, and the better he is the louder they get. Guys like that are very tough to play against, believe me.
But Ei-chan’s method is quintessentially Ei-chan – to the point where if you asked me to show you a sequence that explained who this boy was, this is probably the episode I’d choose. What we’re seeing here is nothing less than a systematic attempt by a remarkable mind to take what’s definitionally intangible and make it tangible. What an amazing kid he is – he feels the impact of indescribable pressure in his gut, but he conquers it by making it something real, concrete. He literally writes down on paper what’s making him crumble, then keeps that paper in his mind’s eye. First, he claws back some lost ground simply by acknowledging what’s stressing him out rather than trying to ignore it. But not content there, he soon realizes that even better is to figuratively erase those stress points – though not completely.
If you’ve played or watched a lot of sports, you know that this is an epiphany of great importance. Pressure is both a good and bad thing, a necessary component of great performance in the clutch. Some, like Ide, can turn it to their advantage by instinct. For Ei-chan, he must make pressure a rational and measurable thing, understanding how it effects his body in both positive and negative ways. And only then can he do what Ide does, use stress to his advantage instead of being controlled by it. Very few athletes can do what Ide does, but even fewer can (or would even try) to do what Ei-chan does.
In the end, though, it’s the emotions of the moment that carry the episode across the finish line. When Natchan shows up and shouts out her support, it’s like a dam has broken – Kageyama and Iinchou finally find their voices, and a few others in the crowd even chime in to support the unseeded player with the iron will. That massive tension one feels in watching a match like this demands an emotional release when the final moments arrive, and Ei-chan finds the inspiration to go beyond his own limitations (including with an amazing tweener) to win the day. When he falls down 0-30 at 5-all, it feels as if the world is about to come crashing down – when he survives and claws out a 0-30 lead on Ide’s serve, any future seems possible.
Indeed, it’s that intoxicating sense of possibility that momentarily knocks Ei-chan out of the zone – by allowing himself to think too far ahead, he momentarily loses his edge. Fortunately, his self-awareness again asserts itself as possibly his most remarkable attribute, and Ei-chan is able to force himself back into the moment. It’s an incredible relief and elation when he puts away that crosscourt volley to finally close the door, and it’s evident in Ei-chan’s face that even he can’t quite take in the significance of it all – but Ide-kun shows his true colors in the way he reacts to having the emotional tables turned on him for once. It’s a fantastic ending to a fantastic match – but like every ending in Baby Steps it’s not really an ending at all but a single step on a long journey, and the start of a new and even more exciting stage of that journey.