Athletes are almost masochistic sometimes, if you ask me. Pain and exhaustion can often times mean enjoyment – being pushed to one’s limits may actually bring out a side to a player – both in their play, as well as in their personality that only appear with immense pressure. Baby Steps this week was all about being pushed to a point where both players are so absorbed in the game, pushing their physical and mental limits such that the world could end and only the game would matter.
It only makes sense for this episode to be just as difficult and exhausting to watch, really. Even during the end of last week’s episode I (as well as most players, I believe) kind of knew Ei-chan was not going to win this match. As much as he is fantastic at dragging out volleys and controlling his pace, a 2-point deficit game against someone whose biggest weapon is his physique is just bad luck on Ei-chan’s luck. Knowing Ei-chan though, such an experience is something he would remember, not just for future reference, but I think also for some kind of sentimentality of sorts. As Kageyama put it in a short flashback sequence with him and Ei-chan in middle school, Ei-chan is finally meeting the people who are just as passionate and serious about winning and doing his very best he is, and as difficult as his road to going pro is, the only way to go is up, at least in terms of being around the right kind of company and having meaningful games that will push Ei-chan to new heights.
I like how this match was basically a show of the world Nat-chan herself inhabits as well – a few episodes ago Nat-chan herself told Ei-chan that one of the most important things in tennis is to have fun, and going professional may be a difficult road, but it definitely is not boring (okay, I rephrased her words a bit). It’s another step into really being in the same path, and having the same field as Nat-chan for Ei-chan. The match will not only make him into a better tennis player, but also someone that understands Nat-chan in a way most people simply cannot.
However, I do feel like the directing was a little bit of a step down compared to say, episodes 8-10, being a little less dynamic than usual. For an episode focusing on extreme exhaustion and desperation, it lacked pizzazz. It’s an old complaint considering how Baby Steps’ direction has always been rather flat and minimalistic, but when the writing is so top-notch it’s just difficult for the rest of the series to keep up.