For me, this is the best match in the Prince of Tennis series. Interestingly, Atobe/Tezuka is my favourite pairing. I don't think the two points are mutually exclusive. This match builds up a connection between the two that I can imagine being replicated in a romantic partnership. Aside from that, though, it's also one of the most gripping arcs of the series. In terms of characterisation, there are few better moments for Tezuka. Equally important is Atobe's growth as a player and as a person. It's an arc that we can only try and get to the bottom of; with so many possible interpretations, it's difficult to confirm the motivations of either character. Possibly, that's just what makes it so damn fascinating.
We start with some foreshadowing. It's explained that Tezuka Kunimitsu has a perfect winning record but that he refused an invitation to the All-Star Junior selection camp of the previous year. Atobe Keigo is the captain of the 200-strong Hyotei team. We get the sense of a hierarchical structure here; Atobe stands atop of his team. Cue opening theme.
The title of episode 65 is 'Become Seigaku's pillar of support', emphasising Ryoma. The whole pillar thing is as important as it is indefinable. It's an umbrella for everything that Tezuka is teaching Ryoma, that Yamato once taught him. It's more than his duties as a captain. It's about finding Ryoma's true potential on one hand and teaching him the spirit of the game and the meaning of the Seigaku team on the other. It's a mutual connection that they alone share, and this match carries as much significance for Ryoma as it does for Tezuka and Atobe. It's the first time we and Ryoma have seen Tezuka play a rival opponent. It's here that Ryoma learns what being the pillar of the Seigaku team really means.
There is lots of Hyotei excitement and chanting. This is assumed to be a measure of the size of Atobe's ego – but looking at it objectively, it's also a ritual practice. The point is not so much to bolster Atobe as to put on a show for the Hyotei team; allowing them to partake in psychologically unnerving Tezuka. It's possible that the same routine would have gone on with the previous Hyotei captain, which might be why they're so damn good at it and also why Tezuka shows very little reaction to it. He's not so much stoic as deliberately indifferent. Nonetheless, Atobe seems to be enjoying the theatrics of it. On a side note, the idea of Hiyoshi doing this routine in a year's time? Priceless.
What happens next is a bizarrely friendly exchange, although I'm not going on the actual language here. Tezuka questions whether Atobe's had enough and Atobe confirms that he's done. Tezuka is proving that he's not unnerved but Atobe isn't fussed that his attempt has failed. They knock fists together. It's all very familiar. Sanada looks pained and infers that Atobe is always this theatrical. Everyone seems generally very excited; this is a match between two equally strong players.
Tezuka indulges in a little small talk, commenting that this is their first meeting. Atobe silkily accuses Tezuka of having avoided him. I'm slightly bemused by the exchange, although it may go back to the fact that the previous year, the two of them defeated each other's captains. Atobe beat Yamato, and Tezuka beat the Hyotei captain, whose name is never mentioned. They've been exposed to each other but never played each other, which I suppose in Tezuka's mind is the sign of having met someone. They exchange shots and there's lots of gratuitous stomach-flashing. Atobe clips the net, but Tezuka reacts quickly and taps the ball upwards with his racket. At which point, Atobe jumps upward and slams the ball down at Tezuka, the impact knocking the racket out of his hand. Everyone is surprised. Atobe is palming his face and looking scary. And saying “be awed by my prowess”, re-emphasising the Hyotei spectacle of it all. Interestingly, everyone on the sub-regular squad refers to Atobe as 'Atobe'. He isn't called Buchou by them, which raises some interesting questions about the Hyotei dynamic. Perhaps within the tight-knit Seigaku team, a captain is both a figurehead and a mentor. He's responsible as much for leading the team in tennis as he is in supporting them emotionally. At Hyotei, everything is more cut-throat. Emotional needs are not pampered; anyone can be thrown out of their spot after a sole defeat. Atobe's role is not to support his team but to give all 200 players a spot to aim for. He has to possess the mental strength to deal with those 200 players nipping at his heels. He's a figurehead to them and as such everyone knows his name, so perhaps that's why he's referred to that way.
Atobe takes the moment to indulge in a bit of teasing, commenting that Tezuka's speed has dropped. Tezuka doesn't take the bait, complimenting Atobe's drive volley. This foreshadows the later progress of the game because whatever Atobe does, Tezuka is not fazed. They are as equal in mental fibre as they are in ability. Atobe thanks him for the compliment, emphasising that he doesn't take it seriously; “here comes the next one!” It's a game to Atobe at this point; a spectacle, a show for the people watching. He has underestimated Tezuka as a person, if not a player. He continues to taunt Tezuka throughout their returns, but gets no reaction. Their equality is commented on by the spectators. Atobe's Insight is introduced. This is one of Prince of Tennis's more sillier techniques that actually has a fairly logical basis; it's Atobe's eyesight and, more specifically, his attention to detail. He uses it to identify weaknesses in his opponent. Inui doesn't like it, which is surprising, as it relies on data collection. Then again, Inui didn't like Mizuki either, so perhaps Inui just wants to keep all the data to himself. Fuji opens his eyes, which is always a sign of impending doom.
Tezuka gets the opportunity to slam the ball down in the same way that Atobe did, but Atobe returns the shot with a Jack Knife. It's clear that he struggles with it. Tezuka is doing the Tezuka Zone. Fuji closes his eyes again (we breathe a sigh of relief). Atobe stops mid-taunt as he spots the Tezuka Zone. Tezuka's feet look really nice when he does that move. Atobe starts laughing in a mildly deranged sort of way. He's covering up his face again. “Pretty good, aren't you Tezuka?” he taunts, “With that arm of yours?” Atobe's taunts up until now have been seen as arrogant bad-sportsmanship but they have concealed the data collection Atobe has been doing. Everyone on the Seigaku team is surprised at his announcement, apart from Fuji who is touching Yuuta's elbow. Ryoma watches, expression inscrutable. Even when confronted with this, Tezuka is not visibly disturbed. Perhaps he realises that it's possible Hyotei have pulled a strategy around their foreknowledge of his injury. Oishi gets a bit out of control and blurts out that Tezuka's elbow is completely healed. Ryoma is shocked here. It's the start of his awareness that Tezuka is as vulnerable as any other player. Of course, Atobe then knows where to focus his attention. Oishi reveals the story behind Tezuka's elbow injury, and that Tezuka asked him not to tell anyone. This emphasises Oishi's role as a trusted confidante in Tezuka's life; the character sharing the responsibility of Seigaku and thus, conversely, the only one separate from it. Tezuka has wanted to keep his injury from the team in order to avoid distraction from winning the National tournament. The story behind Tezuka's injury reiterates what matters to him as a person; winning the Nationals, Oishi and sportsmanly conduct in tennis.
2 years ago, when Tezuka and Oishi entered Junior High, Tezuka was an amazing freshman player. He was “better than any of the seniors”, and gracious about it. Oishi seems to have fanboyed him for a bit before confusing him with the proposal of friendship. Oishi warns Tezuka of the hostility that the senior players may hold towards him. Seigaku haven't had much luck as a team and some of the “irritated people” are vengeful. It's interesting to note here how different Seigaku is under Tezuka's captain-ship. Of course, they're no longer down on their luck but they're emotionally cohesive through victories and defeats. The feeling of support and team pride is overwhelming. For Ryoma, a hundred times more caustic and showy than Tezuka, to survive in that team, big changes have taken place. Tezuka acknowledges Oishi's warning, but he doesn't seem to take it too seriously. He learns from that mistake. At this point, Tezuka is all ambition. He doesn't care about the rule that no freshman can make the team (a rule that also gets lifted for Ryoma the following year) and he maintains that Seigaku will go further than Oishi can dream of. Tezuka wants to take the team to the Nationals in he and Oishi's time. They make a pact to do it together. Tezuka is visibly surprised when Oishi claps their hands together. In doing so, Oishi reveals that Tezuka is left-handed. He has been playing the senior players right-handed, because he cared about their feelings, wanting to downplay his own skill. Of course, this backfires, and their resentment intensifies. Angry, one of them lashes out at Tezuka and smashes his racket into his left elbow.
Tezuka objects to the morality of this. Yes, unbelievably, his main concern is that it's not fair to use tennis to hurt people. His authority at this point is strong, but his passion is, too. He decides to quit because of what Seigaku represents to him. At this point, he isn't responsible for the team. He isn't Seigaku's pillar. He is happy to walk away from the promise he made Oishi. Tezuka is capable of being selfish. When Yamato offers him the captain-ship in order to stop him quitting, Tezuka begins to realise his own capabilities. He's still streaks ahead of the other regulars but being captain; well, that's a new way to get to the Nationals. What this also shows is that where Tezuka is the fire, Oishi is the wood. Standing in front of Tezuka with his arms spread out, he reiterates that Tezuka cannot quit – or he will, too. It's a show of affection, loyalty and care that surprises Tezuka and forms the way they manage Seigaku in their years. Where Tezuka is authoritative and ambitious, Oishi looks out for the well-being of the team. He is, also, the person Tezuka trusts with his own vulnerability. This is why, later in the match with Atobe, only Oishi holds any authority over Tezuka. There's a poignant flashback to earlier moments in the series, the journey to the Nationals, with Tezuka's silhouette in the middle. As much as that's moving, it's also reflective of the responsibility Tezuka has taken on. This responsibility is what has changed him as a person.
A year later, the injury worsened, probably due to the amount Tezuka practices. The Zero Shiki drop move is particularly hard on his elbow. As it turns out, this is why he turned down the invitation to the Junior camp. The burden of responsibility becomes more obvious as the match progresses, partly because the burden of his injury has hindered Tezuka mentally. The flashback presents him as an ambitious freshman disregarding sound advice. After being injured and becoming Seigaku's figurehead, Tezuka can no longer afford that perspective. He's far more restrained at this point, far more cautious and far less ambitious about his own potential. He is happy to see Ryoma live out the dreams of careless abandon he had at Ryoma's ages. His role now is to guide Ryoma and to guide Seigaku, in fulfilling the promise he and Oishi made together. Tezuka has changed a huge amount in two years, because of becoming captain and because of being injured. Importantly, playing this match with Atobe connects that flashback with the present. Tezuka's passion comes full circle and he plays without thought to his injury; something, we can safely assume, he has not done for some time.
Back to the present, then, Ryoma asserts calmly that the injury must have healed. Oishi confirms it. Everyone seems to relax. Oishi remains worried, though, and Eiji insists that Atobe is merely bluffing. At this point, we can't tell whether he is or he isn't. Tezuka performs the Zero Shiki and everything looks to be going well. He takes the first game, and Atobe is horrified. “Don't hold back,” Tezuka tells him. “Give me all you've got.” The gauntlet has been thrown. It's a clever move that just as we're learning about the sheer force that is Tezuka, so is Atobe. And he's thinking that he's seriously screwed. This is the moment where it changes from a game into something far more meaningful. Without the help of an explanatory story for Atobe, we can only go on guesswork.
Ryoma watches and absorbs. Atobe muses that Tezuka is really something; it's as if he's seen to the entire flashback, really. He hasn't – what he has noted the strength Tezuka holds as a result of that experience. Now that the audience understands why Tezuka is the way he is, Atobe's blind recognition of it is a fantastic way of hitting the point home. Tezuka is strong. Tezuka is determined. Tezuka is talented. The score is now 3-2 to Tezuka. Atobe has lost all of his malevolence and is noticeably worried. Hyotei are starting to murmur their dismay. This doesn't seem to be something they've seen before. The atmosphere around Atobe is different; there is no spectacle, no theatre, no fun. It is the gritty reality – Atobe, their figurehead and target, is losing. This is not a situation that Atobe can maintain. It is the antithesis of his role. Sakaki-sensei, the Hyotei bench coach, takes Atobe aside for an encouraging chat. This constitutes pointing out that Tezuka wants to win quickly and that Atobe should take control of the game. The meaning of this hangs in the air. Atobe interprets this as a personal weakness, and asks if Tezuka is afraid of himself that much. Perhaps this is because he wants to find something in Tezuka that justifies what Sakaki-sensei is suggesting he do. Nonetheless, Atobe takes comfort in the talk and walks back onto the court fully intending to control the game.
Ryoma is a less chatty bench coach; he and Tezuka share no words at all, much to everyone else's dismay. This seems to be exactly what both of them want, though, reiterating their similarity. At this point, Tezuka knows what he needs to do. Ryoma knows that with Tezuka's determination, saying anything would be a waste of breath. It would be the same for him.
Some of the spectators bring up a special move of Atobe's, thus far not seen. We begin to suspect that Atobe will use it to control the game. There is a flashback to last year's Junior camp with Atobe taking on four players at once. He smashes the ball into one of the player's closed fists; knocking the racket from his hand. On the return, he lobs the ball past them all. This is Atobe's Rondo towards Destruction, and it emphasises perfectly his style of play. Atobe is an aggressive and a creative player. He is perfectly suited to his individualistic, cut-throat team. Tezuka's best techniques are defensive, suitable for his style. Seigaku values skill and perfection of technique where Hyotei places importance on winning at all costs. These differences are about to merge over the course of the game. The four players look up at Atobe, somewhat shaky with disbelief. He blames them for lobbing it at him. He comes across as unbelievably arrogant at this point, but he is gunning for the Hyotei captaincy. It's in his nature to recognise himself as above others, which he needs to do as Hyotei's captain, just as Tezuka recognises himself as the background force that binds his team. Where other players have been unnerved by Atobe, Tezuka is not. He is unperturbed by the chanting, dismissive of Atobe's taunting and complimentary of his skill. He is nothing that Atobe has seen before. It is difficult for him to dismiss the courage and the mental fortitude that Tezuka displays. At the same time, he has to defeat Tezuka. The strategy he has for this is terrible but it is, in his mind, essential. He doesn't see that he can beat Tezuka any other way. This is a horrible confliction for Atobe, and it rears its head as the game progresses.
Atobe makes a show of using the Rondo on Tezuka and instead, taps it over the net. Ryoma is surprised. His expression changes to anger as Tezuka's does; both are aware that Atobe is not giving Tezuka all he has. Atobe is confident that Tezuka's elbow is healed; if it weren't, it would be impossible to perform the Zero-Shiki. Ryoma's face is open, perhaps a touch anxious. Atobe goes on to explain that if his elbow is healed, his shoulder may not be. This is what giving Tezuka all he has will risk. “I can see it,” he says, smashing the racket out of Tezuka's hand. Ryoma is distinctly concerned. “Can your shoulder withstand a long game?” Atobe thinks to himself. “I can take you out of tennis forever in an hour.” It is explained that although Tezuka's elbow is healed, the supporting shoulder is at risk in long games that use his Zero Shiki shot. Atobe can indeed do irrevocable damage to Tezuka's career.
At this point, we have to wonder about Atobe's motivations. We know that he intends to control the game. If we assume that he's going to do this by prolonging it, we have to assume that he does intend to risk permanent damage to Tezuka's shoulder. This poses two problems. The first is that we've seen Atobe's developing respect for Tezuka. Whether he will be able to injure to a player he is starting to respect is questionable. The second is whether someone like Atobe would regard such a victory as being anything less than a hollow cheat. The only real conclusion we can draw from this is that Atobe is either bluffing, or prepared to do what Hyotei has taught him to do – win at any cost. If he is able to ignore what he has seen in Tezuka; nobility, passion, talent and courage, he can probably go through with the strategy. Given what he stands to lose if he loses the match, it seems reasonable to conceive that he could do it. Crucially he remarks that he can “defeat anyone in 30 minutes” but that he wants Tezuka to play him for two hours, “along with the destruction of your shoulder!” We have to assume, then, that Atobe has placed Hyotei above his own morality. Alarmed by the prospect of losing and by the change in the atmosphere around him, Atobe intends to win at any cost. It is not a sensible decision, but it seems to be the only one he has in that moment.
Back in theatrical mode, Atobe taunts Tezuka with the assertion that he has completely controlled the game. Nobody can understand why any player would by choice damage another. The point is that they are Seigaku; Tezuka emphasises the team's warmth, co-operation, belief and sportsmanship. They cannot understand the nature of Hyotei which is that none of those qualities are important; only winning. If Atobe wins by injuring Tezuka, his team will not consider it any less a victory. Losing, on the other hand, is not an option for him. It means stepping down from the top of the Hyotei pyramid. It means losing everything that he has worked for. As long as he can ignore what he respects in Tezuka, all Atobe has to go on is what he knows. Surrounded by a viciously competitive team and a morally reprehensible coach, Atobe makes the only decision he can. That it is incomprehensible to Seigaku is unsurprising. What is interesting is that it doesn't seem too surprising to Tezuka.
Inui points out that if Tezuka hurries the game, he will make mistakes. This offers us another interesting perspective; that Atobe is bluffing. If he is, it is a very good bluff. Tezuka is drawn into pushing the game on; his style is becoming wilder and less controlled. He is playing with increasing passion. The next series of shots show him fully concentrated on himself and on the game. It is implied that this focus will eventually be his downfall. Nonetheless, he seems aware of Atobe's intentions and this in itself is interesting.
Atobe, in contrast, is thinking about what will happen if Tezuka endures. At this point, he seems reasonably cheerful but aware that if Tezuka is drawn into his plot, he will end up in pain. He taunts Tezuka, encouraging him to “hurry up” unless he wants “a career-threatening injury”. This increasingly suggests that Atobe is bluffing. His control of the game is not drawing it out but making Tezuka think he is drawing it out. Forcing Tezuka to concentrate on finishing the game is leading to wilder and wilder shots and, feasibly, more mistakes. This is arguably still an unfair way to play the game but it also suggests that neither Atobe nor Hyotei are as nasty as to deliberately ruin another player's career. Atobe knows that Tezuka is difficult to psychologically unnerve. He has seen that thus far. Issuing a horrific threat means that Tezuka has to take the bait – he can't risk assuming Atobe is bluffing about breaking his shoulder. That is the only way for Atobe to psyche Tezuka out and it is far more likely that this was his true intention. However cut-throat Hyotei are, it is difficult to argue that Atobe would find any joy in winning by ruining Tezuka's career. Winning by psychological if not sporting advantage, though, would be somewhat satisfactory. “Now hurry up and attack me!” he says.
The big problem, then, is that at the heart of it, Tezuka is still an ambitious and sometimes selfish person. He cannot risk assuming Atobe is bluffing, but he is prepared to risk his shoulder; in order to win the Nationals, or in order to win the game that has set him on fire. Tezuka has not played this way in a long time. Adrenaline is going and Tezuka is stubborn. Atobe has underestimated just how stubborn. He has put them both in the situation of having to draw out the game. It is Tezuka who refuses to free himself from it, defying Atobe's expectation and shaping the course of the game. Tezuka issues his challenge in a series of stunning shots and Atobe is visibly horrified. Ryoma murmurs 'Buchou'. Tezuka is strong. Tezuka is noble. Tezuka is passionate, selfish and courageous. He will stay and try to take the match if it means hurting himself. Atobe has underestimated him twice over, and it is a hard and nasty realisation. “He's trying to accomplish something,” says Inoue. “That's the kind of eyes he has. Those are the eyes of wanting to attain something.”
What is it that Tezuka wants to accomplish? Oishi realises that Tezuka wants to live up to the name, the pillar of support. Sengoku supposes that Tezuka will take winning as Seigaku's captain over his arm. It is about more than that. If Tezuka forfeited, Ryoma as a reserve would play Hiyoshi. It is likely that he would win. Tezuka's match is not mathematically crucial for the Nationals. If it were just about the victory, Tezuka could forfeit. Equally, he could change hands, something we know he can do but which he never does. This is about being a pillar, because Tezuka is teaching Ryoma and Atobe about sportsman-like conduct. It is also about Tezuka's personal ambition. It is about Tezuka taking a victory for himself and about his own selfishness. Atobe has presented Tezuka with the opportunity to play without regret, to play to his fullest potential without fear of his injury. Tezuka wants to pursue that until the end – and he wants to win. Tezuka has shaken off his selfishness in becoming Seigaku's pillar and tutoring Ryoma. He has taken on responsibility and transferred his dreams into the team. He has let go of the ambitious twelve year old that he appreciates in Ryoma. Here, he recaptures it. He is trying to attain a small moment of personal glory. In doing so, he is teaching Ryoma and his team about winning fairly, never giving up and overcoming adversity. It is a complex mixture of motivations but it is not merely duty that keeps Tezuka in the game. As much as he is moral, noble and sacrificial, he is passionate and selfish. Atobe brings out these qualities in Tezuka and allows him to become what he probably is, underneath the responsibility that Yamato has placed on him. “Show me what you have,” Ryoma thinks. “Until the end.” This is a huge lesson for him, too.
“Now, let's play with no regrets.” Tezuka says. For Atobe, this is impossible. Tezuka's actions force him to go through with his bluff. He is no longer taunting and no longer superior. He still has to win, as Fuji makes obvious, and if Tezuka won't back down then he has to put his shoulder at risk. His plan has superbly backfired, and he doesn't look particularly happy about it. But, Tezuka's words have cleared Atobe of blame. They emphasise Tezuka's choice. Whatever happens in the match, Tezuka will have no regrets – and he doesn't wish Atobe to have any, either. This is crucial in the end as Atobe's appreciation of Tezuka's qualities intensifies.
Sakaki-sensei reiterates the pressure on Atobe's shoulders; telling him to be the one who stands above hundreds in the Hyotei team. For Atobe, though, this is beginning to be a game of determination. As he returns the ball, he roars Tezuka's name. It is about the opponent, not the victory. Now that Tezuka has set the terms for the remainder of the game, Atobe is beginning to do as Tezuka initially asked – give Tezuka all he has. He uses the Rondo again, but Tezuka lowers his racket and returns the shot. Atobe aims to Tezuka's handicapped right side, but Tezuka deploys the Tezuka Zone to guide the ball back to where he wants it, then returns it with the Zero Shiki shot. Atobe is slowly losing control of the game. It's here that he realises just how formidable Tezuka is as an opponent. “This guy...is he serious?” At this point, Tezuka needs one more shot to take the game and the match. “Just one more shot,” he pleads. “Let me take it.” He raises his left arm to take the shot, and drops his racket to the ground. He collapses, clutching his shoulder. Ryoma looks dumbstruck. The vulnerability of his mentor here is horrifically apparent. This is the moment in which Tezuka's strength is properly tested.
Sending the regulars back, Tezuka is determined to carry on. If anything, the strength of his decision has increased. Offered an opportunity to retire, he refuses to take it. He will, despite the pain and the threat of serious injury, see this match until the end. Even facing a tie-break, he will continue. Tezuka's identity as a pillar is strong but his selfishness is apparent, too. It is his determination to succeed that keeps him in the game instead of handing over to Ryoma. Playing the game of his life, he does not want to retire when it is in his, and the team's, best interests to do it. Only Oishi sees what it means to Tezuka, because he has seen Tezuka as a twelve year old. He not only understands their pact better than any of the others, but also the ambition that Tezuka had to make the dream come true. He senses that it is the right thing to do. It may not be the honourable or sensible thing to do, but for Tezuka alone in that moment, it is right. Atobe's reaction to this is not good, despite the fact that it has kept him in the game.
When Tezuka says “We'll finish this fight, Atobe”, the determination that he showed has been thoroughly proven. His worth as a rival, too, is thoroughly proven. Atobe realises that Tezuka has more courage and strength than anyone he has has played before. He has no desire to finish the match; enough to be sorry that he did not lose moments before, but he will because he has given himself no choice. It has been a lesson difficulty learned, but it is an important one. Tezuka has proven to him that there is more in tennis than winning. Tezuka has not shown himself as the saint to Atobe's devil. Tezuka's courage and ambition are Atobe's qualities, too; they are just honed in a more positive way. Atobe has been exposed to the Seigaku way of doing things; the regulars that run onto the court when their captain is hurt, the regulars that tie white support bands around their heads and wave enormous flags above the stands. The regulars that stand between each other and victory, and tell each other to give up. It is as if he recognises the Hyotei chanting for what it is: hollow. It is as if he recognises the Hyotei team tactics for what they are: ruthless and meaningless. Tezuka has taught him that someone just like him can survive in a team like Seigaku; a team where wins do not have to come at any cost, but where ambition is just as raw as it is at Hyotei. Tezuka is a version of Atobe. He is a version that is sportsmanlike and noble, but he is a version of Atobe, nonetheless. Atobe can see himself in Tezuka. And so, there is a tie-break which becomes hollower and hollower to him. “Tezuka...” he murmurs. He no longer wants to win. His motivations have changed as a result of meeting Tezuka, and it is obvious that whatever the result, he will not forget the match.
They thrash it out in the tie-break, which seems to go on forever. “Tezuka...” Atobe says. “I misjudged you.” He hasn't expected his determination. “Who'd have thought you'd have such a reckless side in you?” Also exhausted, you get the impression that Atobe just wants the game to end. It doesn't. It goes on forever. Ryoma is stunned. Nobody can believe it. They are equal; both passionate, both reckless, both wild. This is a side of Tezuka we have never seen before. Atobe has brought out Tezuka's selfish and impulsive side. “There isn't a bit of hesitation in Tezuka's play.” Tezuka has brought out Atobe's humility. They are equals in every possible way there is to be equal. The numbers rack up and up. Until Tezuka's Zero Shiki fails and Atobe leaps forward to tip it over the net. Using the Tezuka Zone, Tezuka draws the ball to him and returns it. Into the net. It falls on his side. There is silence. Atobe wins the match 7-6. Nobody says or does anything. But Tezuka's face says it all. He sighs, and it's redemptive (and achingly beautiful).
“That was the best match.” Atobe says, raising their hands above the net. And he means it. Dejected, he goes to sit on the bench. It has been a hollow victory and he regrets the strategy that set the course of the match. He has learnt, though. His game has been advanced by Tezuka and he has learnt from him as a person. He offers him his respect. Tezuka, too, has learnt something about himself that he has hidden over the past years. He has ached through the match and lost it, but at the end, his face is grimly satisfied. He has gotten what he needed. Atobe has allowed him an hour or two to behave without responsibility and to play without regret.
Why ship them? Their passion. Their drive. Their ambition. Their recklessness. They bring out the best and the worst in each other. They come from entirely different backgrounds and their methods are entirely different. But they are so influential on each other that these differences don't matter; they learn from each other, and they're better people around each other. I think that's all I can really ask of a pairing.