At face value, Baby Steps appears to stray heavily from the archetypal sports anime cultivated with modern releases such as Haikyuu!! and Kuroko’s Basketball dominating the forefront of the genre. With comparatively lackluster production value artistically and musically, paired with unimaginative choreography in the matches itself, Baby Steps lacks the immediate flair that grasps the viewer’s attention. And while it is just a single factor to consider when judging a show, the visual depiction of the sport in question is critical to the subsequent popularity (or lack thereof) of notable sports anime because of their natural capacity to reproduce the tension and stakes that arise within the essence of competition.
If the numerical measures (i.e. member count) available on popular websites such as MyAnimeList and Reddit were to reflect even the most general outcomes of prioritizing the spectacle and exhilaration of sport, the striking benefits of such an approach are more attractive to a general audience in comparison to Baby Steps’ aesthetic humility.
Yet Baby Steps’ comparative lack of attention to other sports anime is an inaccurate testament to its quality. Rather than focusing on the physicality of tennis, Baby Steps painstakingly documents the contribution of mental fortitude on athletic and personal improvement through the perspective of the intelligent, driven Eiichiro Maruo, while maintaining a firm sense of realism to promote the genuine appeal of tennis.
Think Hard, Play Hard
In reference to an article published in the November 2010 issue of the Harvard Business Review focused on the viability of the underdog narrative within the marketing sphere, there exist two essential qualities that compose a strong foundation for its potential success: “a disadvantaged position…and a passion and determination to triumph against the odds” (Source).
In Baby Steps, Eiichiro encapsulates the essence of both conditions with no natural caveat or extraordinary gift to give him the semblance of a fighting chance. He only becomes invested in tennis and declares his intentions to go professional during his first year of high school, a time characterized by intensive academic workload in preparation for college examinations. Under most circumstances, an individual might hold one of two perceptions about his endeavor into the sport: one of doubtful skepticism and one of realistic optimism. The former is best demonstrated through Eiichiro’s mother, who undermines Eiichiro’s request to become a professional tennis player under the guise that such a feat would be overwhelmingly challenging. Her assumptions hold significant truth, given that it remains extremely rare for professional athletes to begin their sports career given the years of training required. It also runs against the traditional path of education that most Japanese high school students pursue. It requires Eiichiro to compromise with his parents; he promises to drop tennis unless he secures a victory at the All-Japan Junior Tennis Tournament. Underscoring the severity of these prospects with twenty episodes of steady build-up towards this moment, the gravity of his decision marks Eiichiro’s newfound understanding of the ramifications needed to chase after his dream in that it will prompt weeks of intense training and unbreakable resilience. He initially lacks the athleticism to compete with the best, but his ability to translate his studious tendencies to tennis proves to be an invaluable asset.
Even other highly skilled tennis players in Baby Steps throughout both seasons demonstrate cynicism towards Eiichiro’s goals. Southern Tennis Club’s Takuma Egawa clearly holds this attitude, fueled in part from the frustration he accumulates from failing to beat his greatest rivals. In his own words: “Some things are never meant to be, no matter how hard you struggle.” Standing ideologically in conflict with the persistent and meticulous Eiichiro, he holds a grudge towards Eiichiro’s endeavors, perhaps as a result of his own insecurities. Therefore, it is fitting that Eiichiro and Takuma find themselves competing against each other in various capacities. Not only do their matches provide a great reference point to measure Eiichiro’s improvements at certain milestones, but emphasize the nuances and fruits of their distinct mindsets. A great demonstration of this occurs during the fourth episode of the first season, where Eiichiro must return at least one serve to avoid a punch to the face from Takuma. Takuma relies on the exact same serving type for the first forty-nine serves and switches it up on the last shot, indicating a lack of motivation to acknowledge his opponent. Meanwhile, Eiichiro largely struggles (and ultimately fails) to return his serves, but slowly manages to accommodate Takuma’s serve in gradual increments through his consistent note-taking, establishing his philosophy towards self-betterment and foreshadowing the long-term training required to climb the ranks.
That said, other members of the Southern Tennis Club provide an escape route for Eiichiro to surround himself with positive influences. And most of them have essential, distinct connections to Eiichiro’s development as a tennis player. Perhaps the greatest influence in Eiichiro’s transition into the athletic world lies with Natsu Takasaki, whose sole motivation to pursue a professional sports career is the enjoyment she experiences from playing tennis. Her pure intentions certainly teeter on the line of aspirational and realistic, but nevertheless provide a “focus” that drives her every minute of training, every minute of competition. This contrasts with Eiichiro’s initial lack of direction in his own life, aimlessly dedicating himself to his academics without truly considering his future. Natsu’s influence sparks the fire that Eiichiro needs to adjust his outlook on life for the greater good, with that vigor translating to Eiichiro’s accelerated improvement.
Eiichiro also trains under several coaches with unique approaches to training up-and-coming tennis players. The two most important characters for Eiichiro’s development are Yusaku Miura and Ryuhei Aoi, who place greater emphasis on the physicality and psychology of their trainees respectively, indirectly working hand-in-hand to cultivate talent despite the outward contrast of their personalities.
The Mental Game of Sports
Regardless, every coach places great emphasis on developing strong mental fortitude. For Eiichiro, this comes in the form of a “square analogy”, where the court is split equally into imaginary sections to assist him with ball placement. He gradually expands upon this basis to increase his precision, eventually increasing the number of squares to one-hundred. On the surface, this looks like a red flag against the realism that Baby Steps maintains, as even the greatest tennis players of history never achieved complete mastery in that regard. Fortunately, neither Eiichiro nor his acquaintances expect to achieve perfection with this strategy, as it is used better as a framework by which to strive towards the direction of perfection rather than perfection itself.
As someone who participated in a handful of competitive sports, including tennis, the strategies employed by the coaches and players within Baby Steps parallel the experiences that myself and other players went through, especially in regards to the difference that sustaining mental toughness can make on and off the tennis court. Even outside sports, there is a common idea that achieving success requires dedication, hard work, and a willingness to learn from failure.
And it lies here where Baby Steps takes the greatest advantage of its own narrative circumstances to demonstrate this concept. Simply put, Baby Steps is a storytelling achievement because it draws greater attention to tennis as an individual sport rather than one centered around a team. Very rarely does the series delve into the complexities and strategies that accompany doubles play in tennis, likely to showcase the pivotal role that the individual upholds in their own accomplishment. This holds especially true in the realm of singles tennis play, where each and every action one takes on the tennis courts and their resulting consequences always tie back to the player. Give or take injuries or the occasional weather nuisance, tennis proves to be amongst the most mentally demanding sports because the player is often accountable for the outcome.
In this regard, Eiichiro’s meticulous note-taking underscores tennis as a sport founded upon strategy. Across dozens of notebooks, Eiichiro jots down shot probabilities and player styles amongst other relevant details as a means of creating “profiles” of his opponents to find the best strategies and to learn from his own mistakes. It allows Eiichiro’s inclination to “study” tennis fundamentals and strategies with much greater precision, assisting him whenever he rematches opponents and comes up against new challenges, with remarkable improvement serving as the fruits of his efforts.
Amongst the fascinating themes Baby Steps explores, it cannot be understated that it all ties back to one simple message that might sound familiar to viewers: “Believe in yourself.” For two full seasons, the fittingly titled opening song sets the tone for Eiichiro’s journey to become a professional tennis player, for Eiichiro to develop further confidence in his abilities and strive towards his goal with unwavering persistence. Yet it extenuates something important that some of us lose sight of: one’s passion can itself contribute to fulfillment and purpose within life. Believing in yourself is not just about developing the confidence to overcome challenges: it is also a means to discover our callings.
Perhaps that is what Baby Steps hopes to communicate through Eiichiro’s downright inspiring story from academic scholar to hopeful tennis pro. Even without a definitive conclusion for anime viewers, the series establishes a fantastic groundwork through its relatable underdog narrative, successfully capturing the true essence of tennis as not one of spectacle but of substance.