Before I begin, here's the list of other shounen sports series that I've followed, in whole or in part, in manga, anime, and/or live action: Aoki Densetsu Shoot, Dear Boys, Eyeshield 21, H2, Hajime no Ippo, Hungry Heart Wild Striker, I'll [Generation Basket], Slam Dunk, Whistle!. (I'm not counting *cough* Hice Cool, but I probably should be.)
A shounen sports series typically goes through several stages: issuing the challenge/passing the test, running away, making the team, team building, etc. Ryoma's story doesn't fit this paradigm very well at all.
The challenge/test phase is something the protagonist has to go through, either to perform a feat to show he's worthy, or to prove himself against the older students.
In Prince of Tennis, Ryoma comes to Seigaku and finds that first year students can't become Regulars for the summer tournament season. So, he challenges Tezuka to a match. If I win, he says, then give me a chance to become a Regular. They play and even though Ryoma loses, he plays with such skill and passion that Tezuka allows him to be in the ranking matches.
Except that didn't happen. Tezuka looked out the window, saw Ryoma playing Arai, and wrote his name down on the sheet. Tezuka deprived Ryoma of his chance to challenge him. (This is the thought that caused me to leave my scarf on the bus.)
Why? Why does Ryoma miss that challenge phase? I don't think Tezuka is doing him any favours by letting him skip it. Or does he see that Ryoma just won't bother? Ryoma will challenge anybody for their own sake, but I'm not sure that he would do so to gain a place on a school team.
Now, I said that Ryoma's story doesn't fit the sports paradigm. But Tezuka's does. When we see wee Flashback!Tezuka, he's very much the earnest shounen hero. He tries to quit, comes back, works harder than ever, and the journey and he and Oishi take to Nationals follows the paradigm quite well, as they build the team along the way, suffer losses, and finally get the point where they may be able to achieve their goal.
But Tezuka is also missing the challenge phase. I wonder if he's just too passive. Well, maybe passive isn't a good word for it. But he seems way more conforming than a sports character should be (I mean, compared to characters in other sports series). He doesn't push against anything. The only thing that comes close was that incident on Kyuushuu, where Shitenhouji force him to play. But even then, they started it.
When Tezuka does have to push to overcome something, it's himself. His injury, his fear. He has no rival, so his opponent is himself. This isn't good. He needs somebody. A rival or a mentor. (I've talked about Tezuka's missing mentor before.)
Passivity aside, Tezuka's story is very much a typical sports story. Ryoma's story seems a lot more personal. His goal is not to make it to Nationals, it's to defeat his father, and later on, to defeat Tezuka. His most important match is not in a tournament, it's in near secrecy. His tournament opponents are most important to him for the opportunity they present him, not for the chance to win for Seigaku.
My theory is that Ryoma is in a different story, some sort of personal tennis quest story, and it's converging with Tezuka's shounen sports story for a while. So they play different parts for each other. Ryoma is Tezuka's missing piece, the final bit of team-building before the last push to Nationals. Tezuka is Ryoma's teacher for this phase in his development, but Ryoma will move on once it's done.
Both their stories veer a bit. Ryoma jogs Tezuka out of his sports series, Tezuka pulls Ryoma in. They become something that doesn't quite fit in either story. It's a wonderful complication and I'm still trying to figure it out.
Another thing that's strange about Ryoma is that we never really get into his head. Every other shounen sports series I've followed, I've always had a good idea of how the main character was feeling. Not so with Ryoma. We rarely, if ever, get to hear his thoughts.
For god's sake, his most important match, the match with Tezuka, in the manga is really all from Tezuka's point of view. All the lead up, the match, most of the aftermath. Ryoma is just there and we only really see his reaction when he's home playing Nanjiroh afterwards.
It's disconcerting to me and I think it's why it took me so long to warm up to Ryoma. I never felt like I was there with him.
But Prince of Tennis does conform with the greatest shounen sports tenet of all: A true sportsman loves his sport more than anything. Because he loves it, he will strive to improve and do everything he can to win, within the bounds of sportsmanlike play. But if he loses, he will do so with grace and he will train all the harder afterwards.
In H2, the evil coach says to his evil pitcher: I don't want players who love baseball. I want players who love to win.
Love of sport is redemptive. That's how Mitsui (Slam Dunk) can come back to the team and play with the same boys he hurt. And love of sport is why Hiruma (Eyeshield 21) is actually a good guy. All the tricky stuff he does? It's all off the field. When he's playing, he plays by the rules. Because he loves football.
But Prince of Tennis turns this on its head because the one who needs to learn this true love of sport is Ryoma. In any other show, that would make him a villain, or at least a problem child that the hero had to face and defeat in order for him to learn the love of sport.
I guess this must be why there was no challenge phase for Ryoma. Without the love of sport, what would have been the point?
In conclusion, Prince of Tennis is a very strange sports series and I'm not sure I understand Tezuka any more than when I started this particular analysis.
It's so cool.