Naomi Osaka: A compelling series on a reluctant superstar

The three-episode series shadows Naomi Osaka’s life between two triumphs at the same venue - the Flushing Meadows - where she won the US Open in 2018 and in 2020.

Osaka's documentary, a Netflix original series, sees the tennis star grapple with moments of clarity and doubt - on and off the field.

Naomi Osaka’s public image has a duality. One is that of a professional athlete, who juggles a whole lot in the public eye - a strong tennis player and a stronger celebrity. The other - an introvert, not one to indulge in overt displays of emotions, socially anxious for the lack of a more appropriate phrase.

Dichotomous, right? Her eponymous documentary, a Netflix original series sticks to this difference and sees the star grapple with moments of clarity and doubt - on and off the field.

Directed by Oscar-nominated Garrett Bradley, the three-episode series shadows Osaka’s life between two triumphs at the same venue - the Flushing Meadows in New York where she won the US Open in 2018 and again in 2020 - two among her four Grand Slam titles so far.

Advertising
Advertising

We hear Osaka’s story in her own voice. A montage from the childhood of the Osaka sisters quickly moves into the infamous final of the 2018 US Open against Serena Williams. If there is a chance you do not know of that game and everything that transpired during and after it, this portion feels like an introduction to an ‘awkward’ champion, whose uncertainty with stardom played out live on television. A near drop of the cup as she walks towards the cameras is followed by a forced smile that almost tries to make up for the second that passed.

This series is not about the many opponents she went past or the incidents she dealt with along the way. It is about her biggest demon - herself.

Naomi Osaka with Serena Williams.

 

One hears internal monologues narrating major events in her life that we have only seen from one side - from that final and her on-court interview with Cori Gauff at the Arthur Ashe stadium in 2019 to her increasingly political personal messaging. Viewers get an almost uncomfortably close seat as she discusses her insecurities, either to the camera or via videos she shared with her followers on social media over the course of its making.

Through it all, we see a star who is clearly itching under the crown. In one of the episodes, we see the Osaka family gathered for Naomi’s birthday. She asks her mother Tamaki a rather odd question given the celebratory setting - “Do you think that by the age of 22, I would have done some more or is this acceptable?” Her mother’s gentle assurances don’t help. Home-schooled and with eight hours of rigorous tennis lessons with her sister Mari every day, Naomi has not seen a life outside of tennis and in her own words "is too far along this path to turn back now."

 

The series also sees her deal with the sudden passing of her mentor, late NBA legend Kobe Bryant. In a self-recorded video, she lifts up her phone showing her lock screen - a monochrome image of Bryant and her and wonders how she almost let down someone whose biggest lesson for her was to work on her mentality. She chides herself for showing weakness, for not being able to emulate Bryant’s ‘Mamba mentality’ and comes to terms with not having him a call away anymore.

The insights put a few things in perspective about Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open this year on grounds of a long struggle with depression. Dealing with that along with the pressures of needing to achieve to validate herself and her team can’t have been easy with a stinging question to go with the anxiety - “What am I, if I’m not a good tennis player.”

One sees that reflected in how Osaka struggles to deal with becoming the first Asian to scale the summit of the WTA rankings. She confesses that she has always found it easier “to be the chaser”. Ironically, ‘following’ is what she struggles to do when questions on her ‘blackness’ arise after she chose to represent Japan and not USA in the Tokyo Olympics. These questions came up around the same time the murder of George Floyd by a policeman in Minneapolis shook America.

Naomi Osaka speaks after winning the 2021 Laureus World Sportswoman of the Year Award. | Photo Credit: GETTY IMAGES

 

Remember her seven masks, one each for seven of many victims of police brutality in the USA? We see that through her eyes;  through those of her Haitian father, Leonard Francois, taking solace in his daughter ‘standing up for him’ to that iconic line - ‘what was the message you got - was the point'.  For this anxious, reserved superstar - the point was to get others talking.

Stunning shot choices, elevated by the background score by Devonte Hynes and Theodosia Roussos, add to the narrative. Conversations of race, colonial history, identity and mental health are dealt delicately, and through lived experiences of the Osaka family. However, that does not drown out the physicality of the job on the court and the grind it demands.

Right after winning the ‘20 US Open, the camera goes to Osaka on the court, lying on her back looking at the sky. The noise around her dims out as she soaks in her triumph and is almost indicative of ground reality. At the end of it all, it's just her. Alone - in victory and defeat, in strife and stardom. Her acceptance of it, as the show reveals, is a work in progress.