It’s a tense week for Baby Steps. The episode continues (or rather, begins) with the match between Araya the power and speed baseliner against our Ei-chan. Araya, like Miyagawa, isn’t a new face – but unlike Miyagawa he’s flat out destroyed Ei-chan in their first match together. More than ever we see how fast Ei-chan has grown. In only a year he’s managed to close up the gap between him and a top ranked national player such that they are actually pretty damn even in terms of skill and ability – what one doesn’t have the other makes up for. It makes for an extremely tense match, knowing how the narrative does allow for Ei-chan to lose here (his main aim was to beat Miyagawa to raise his rank and become a seeded player for the All-Japan tournament) makes things even harder to watch!
Just as the episode itself states – its times like these where the playing field is so even that any little advantage one has over the other can be game-changing. In Ei-chan’s case we learn about his unbalanced growth, and how his speed of evolution in tennis also means he never got the chance to play more matches with more varied opponents. Dumb as it may sound – playing against southpaws are always a real pain. As someone who’s played both softball and tennis I can say for a fact that left-handed players are always much harder to deal with. Your body not only has to adapt to shots going places you usually don’t hit, but the player’s line of sight, and many other factors are all different. It really isn’t only a mirror image, and even then on-the-spot image training can only take a player so far without experience. Ei-chan’s made quite a ton of blunders in this round, but it really isn’t his fault – when you’re up against something totally new to you it takes time, no matter how much of a genius you may be.
I did like the subtle comparison made by Araya between Ei-chan and Ike Souji – in fact Ike serves as a great….goalpost of sorts for Ei-chan. They’re different types of players sure, but their insane growth trajectory is something the both of them share, except that Ike started earlier. Ike will most definitely be one of Ei-chan’s biggest rivals (along with Nabae, as far as Japan is concerned), a moving goalpost that forces Ei-chan to always keep his growth in check. Almost every character in Baby Steps serves a real narrative purpose – fleshing out the (professional) world, showing a personal, off-court side to Ei-chan, being markers that indicate his growth.
As a manga reader I’m so far ahead of the anime I can’t even remember how this match went down so luckily you readers won’t be seeing pathetic attempts at keeping posts spoiler-free or whatever. My money’s on the next episode ending on a 3rd set match point cliffhanger….