It’s a funny thing about Ei-chan – he’s a perfect mirror for any player who wants to improve to hold himself up against. He so relentlessly and unerringly finds the flaw, the defect – sometimes ones the opponent himself doesn’t know he has – that if there’s a willingness to be honest the opponent almost can’t help but get better as a result of playing him. And he’s so receptive to training himself that he’s a perfect student (much as he was in the classroom) for any coach to mold into a formidable player.
Is Takagi one of those willing to learn the lessons playing Ei-chan offers him? It seems he might be, and if his interaction with Aoi-kantoku after the match is any indicator, he doesn’t seem to have a strong relationship with an existing coach. The fundamental flaw in Takagi’s strategy was revealed in this match – it’s completely dependent on the opponent. If Takagi’s mind games don’t undermine the enemy’s frame of mind, they’re useless – and he doesn’t have a reserve of confidence that he can win based on skill alone to fall back on. It’s almost – not quite – enough to make me feel sorry for him.
Make no mistake, it’s clear Takagi’s gamesmanship has been effective against many opponents, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s met its limits against Nabae and Maruo. There were definitely times in this match where Maruo lost himself because of Takagi’s chippy play, and one of them was in the aftermath of Takagi firing two straight balls directly at him while he was helpless at the net – the second directly at his face. I’ve been in that situation, and it’s a terrible feeling knowing the opponent has all the time in the world and can play any shot he wants – you’re a sitting duck.
In fact, Maruo actually won that point – and it was a critical one too, as it gave him a 5-3 lead in the tiebreaker. But it unnerved him, and he learned a hard lesson – anger is not the same thing as pressure. And 5-3 in a crucial tiebreaker is not the time to be experimenting with your own state of mind, ever for a relentless experimenter like Ei-chan. That was the danger of what Takagi did, and it almost worked – indeed, Takagi’s greatest strength is not his trickery but his stamina, and having to go three sets with him would have been difficult. A player with less self-awareness than Ei-chan (which is to say every junior in Japan with the possible exception of Nabae) probably wouldn’t have recovered in time to save that set – but Ei-chan did, even if he had to take an intentional time warning to do it.
That’s the truly remarkable thing about Ei-chan, that unerring ability to look at himself honestly and to rationally break down even inherently irrational influences on his state of mind. And once the first set is in the bag (after a lucky framed volley and then a gorgeous drop shot and lob) the eventual result of this match is not much in doubt. This is the sad truth for Takagi – right now he just doesn’t have the firepower to take down a top player in a heads-up fight. Tournament tennis doesn’t give you the option to keep the opponent on the court for nine hours until he’s so exhausted you win a set. It was nice to see he took the right lessons from the match, and even showed a certain humility in openly asking Ei-chan for insight after it ended. But it’s hard to see how he can break through the glass ceiling he’s butting up against – he may just have gone as far as his talent can take him.
As for Ei-chan, his limits are self-imposed – the promise he made to his parents, to be specific. He’s already improved an astonishing amount in two years and is clearly nowhere close to reaching his full potential. The anime cleverly moved the sequence where Aoi-san showed Ei-chan (and Yukichi) how to play the tweener (yes, Ei-chan – it is scary) to here – in the manga, it was used as foreshadowing. But the anime made (I would argue) even greater use of it as an illustration of how Ei-chan sows the seeds of his own improvement – how it’s his hard work and patience that allows him to get better so quickly.
Now, of course, comes a moment of reckoning. Nabae-kun is a formidable and important foe – Takagi knows Nabae better than anyone and he sees Ei-chan in him. And indeed, both Nabae and Ei-chan see themselves in each other, and have since their first meeting. If Ei-chan is the mirror that shows opponents aspects of their own game they don’t always want to see, now the tables are turned because Nabae is like Maruo Mark I – he’s been Ei-chan for a lot longer than Ei-chan has (and he’s digital, while Ei-chan is analog). Even in a series as painstaking as this one, some baby steps are bigger than others – and facing down Nabae is one of the biggest.