This was a truly great episode, in ways both expected and unexpected.
oor Sasaki would surely disagree). I think it's wonderful that Ei-chan cares so much that he can't quite hold back the tears as he talks about it with Nat-chan, and her reaction to the awkwardness is perfect. I see Nat-chan criticized a lot, but my honest view is that comes from not really getting where she's coming from as a person - maybe the anime hasn't done a good enough job of portraying that, and I know her too well to notice. She's an incredibly honest and positive person, and she seems to always know the right thing to say to Maruo - Nat-chan trusts her instincts in key moments both on and off the court, and they usually serve her well. There's no artifice to her - when Nat-chan says something it's because it's what she truly thinks, and when she thinks something she usually doesn't hesitate to say it.
dutifully taking notes as soon as their match begins. For Takuma this was in many ways the worst possible result - he shared Araya's weaknesses with Ei-chan, and the net result was that Araya won anyway and improved his weaknesses in the process. But as Takuma says he deals with Ei-chan every day, so he's used to having to think on the court. The final match was a fascinating one - beautifully animated, and the contrast in styles between the fluid and graceful net player and the gritty and intense counter-puncher came across better than I ever imagined it could. As for Araya going back on his word after the match, it was only right - Araya accomplished something very significant during this tournament, even if it wasn't what he originally set out to accomplish.
awards ceremony to look forward to, Maruo's first as a participant. But when he goes to stow his notes in his bag (yes, Japan is the safest country in the world) he runs across a young man who immediately recognizes him as "Notebook-kun" and grabs his pad without asking. This, as we soon learn, is Ike Souji (Hosoya Yoshimasa) the boy Maruo's age who left STC at 14 and went to study in Florida because no Japanese in his age bracket (certainly not Takuma) could challenge him. Ike is in town for the upcoming Japan Open, where he plans to make his pro debut - but he gives Ei-chan a message to deliver to Miura-kantoku, that he'll be stopping by for a proper visit. It's no spoiler to say Ike is an important figure in Baby Steps, and we haven't seen the last of him.
Ei-chan's parents aren't cardboard figures relegated to the background - they're real people who love their son and care about his future, and his "Tatoeba..." moment at the end of the episode is one of the true landmark moments in the series.