As I type this, the clock is ticking down towards what should be one of the best matches men’s tennis has seen in years – Djokovic and Federer in the U.S. Open final. These two have clearly been the best players not just this tournament but this year, and the drama is heightened by the fact that Fed is doing this at the unlikely age of 34, when you simply aren’t supposed to be able to do what he’s doing physically. But he’s been denied that 18th Slam that’s eluded him for three years, and Djokovic is the main reason – Roger was the best player at Wimbledon by a long stretch until that finals rematch with the current best player in the world.
One of the things that makes that matchup so fascinating is the contrast between Federer’s attacking, unpredictable and almost balletic brilliance and Djokovic’s relentless, intellectual perfection. But in Maruo vs. Nabae we’re seeing a matchup that’s epic for a different reason, and that’s because these two players are so very much alike. That doesn’t always yield a compelling match but in this case it does, mostly thanks to the writing of Katsuki Hikaru.
One thing among many I really love about Baby Steps is they way it captures how so much of tennis is a mental game – the war between the ears that usually trumps the one between the lines. Given that’s such a strength of this series it’s no surprise that this match should be among its most compelling, because these are the two most complicated boys in the cast. And not only that, Nabae is virtually Ei-chan’s alter ego – a tantalizing yet taunting goal and target, a reminder of all that’s possible for Ei-chan but also of how far away the goal is. Nabae-kun is in many ways the player Ei-chan longs to become, and a reminder that he hasn’t yet achieved the goal.
There’s a very interesting moment in the episode where we see – via flashback – something we haven’t before, a matchup between Nabae and Ike Souji. Ike is an even more elusive goal for Ei-chan than Nabae, and he represented for Nabae a puzzle he couldn’t solve – a talent that transcended Nabae’s ability to unlock it through analysis and observation. But it was being pummelled by Ike that was the final impetus for Nabae to channel his negative emotions into something he could use as a positive on the court. For players like Nabae and Ei-chan, the game will never be as natural and free as it is for someone like Ike Souji – just as, I suspect, even as he rises to the ultimate heights Djokovic will never understand the way tennis feels to someone like Federer or Sampras.
But the thing is, that hasn’t stopped Djokovic from becoming the dominant player in an era where Federer, Murray and Nadal are still relevant – and I think that’s very much the point. The challenge for Maruo-kun is that Nabae is like a mirror off which all of his strategies are reflected. Maruo does find a way to hold serve one more time and win the first set, but he’s forced to rely on one-off surprise tactics to do it – a quick serve, a second-serve ace, an out-of-context drop shot. That kind of strategy isn’t sustainable over the long haul, because in addition to being outside Maruo’s comfort zone it’s not really a strategy at all, but rather reckless abandonment of strategy in favor of pure surprise. Nabae is simply too smart, too observant and too calm under pressure to be consistently fooled by tactics like that over a full set. And as any military historian can tell you, tactics and strategy are two very different things.
So what’s the answer? That’s the puzzle Ei-chan must try and solve if he wants to storm the barricades, subdue Nabae-kun and level up in a sports series where leveling up really means something. Nabae promptly breaks him in his first service game of the second set, and he seems to be one step ahead of every move Ei-chan makes. “If he sees 10, he goes for 11. If he sees 11, he goes for 12” Ei-chan thinks to himself, and this is the risk-minimizing strategy his opponent has mastered – understand the opponent thoroughly, and risk only as much as necessary to defeat him. That means Ei-chan’s change-of-pace and 1/81 control won’t work – not well enough to win, anyway. And he lacks the raw firepower to win by trying to devolve the match into an out-and-out slugfest.
The only answer Ei-chan can come up with? The Zone – that mystical place he’s visited only four times in his tennis career. I’ve made reference to the way Ei-chan’s psyche is built around trying to quantify the unquantifiable, and he offers his own twist this week – “consciously unconscious”. This is not a riddle Ei-chan is ready to solve yet, but that’s what he’s staring at – how does he do what his coach suggests is possible, consciously will himself into a state that’s inherently reached unconsciously? Trying to unravel that kōan (I don’t use that word by chance, though I won’t go into detail – yet) is clearly the giant baby step that the season to going to build its conclusion around.