Naomi Osaka’s name is one of the biggest in the tennis world. Osaka rose to fame when she won the US Open in 2018, beating favorite Serena Williams, and became the first Asian world number one shortly thereafter. She’s currently the reigning US Open and Australian Open champ, and has four Grand Slam titles at age 23.
In more recent weeks, Osaka has made waves by being extremely outspoken about the media coverage that athletes endure. At the French Open, she was fined $15,000 for refusing to participate in post-game interviews and eventually withdrew from the tournament, citing her mental health as a catalyst for her actions. After no changes were made to press regulations, she then opted out of playing at this year’s Wimbledon at all for those same reasons, marking one of the few times a professional athlete has sat out a tournament explicitly for mental health.
It’s apt, then, that the Netflix docuseries about her life is first and foremost about her adaptation to the life of a celebrity, and the struggles she’s faced while living in the public eye. From the first frame of the three-part series (executive produced by LeBron James and Maverick Carter), Osaka’s need to please and her concerns about disappointing her friends and family are placed front and center—not in a bad way, but in a way that makes you question the psyche of a professional athlete. After all, athletes who put in this much time and attach their self-worth to their professional achievements are bound to feel some sort of anxiety or depression when they lose or fall short of their goals. Naomi Osaka is just one of the first to put words to it.
It’s this open and honest quality that makes her a great documentary subject. Composed via professional footage from the last two years as well as archival family videos and self-recorded videos, director Garrett Bradley weaves the life story of an ambitious, outspoken, and also soft-spoken megastar who isn’t afraid to reveal more about herself while pushing others to see things in a different light. While she has been personable in her previous press engagements, in the docuseries that bears her name, she is raw. In one passage, Osaka’s reaction to her mentor Kobe Bryant’s death via a self-recorded cell phone video is moving as she figures out how to react in real time, reminiscing on his champion mentality that she aims to emulate, and lamenting all the missed opportunities to pick his brain. It’s an intimate and voluntary peek inside of her brain—one that puts her anxieties and fears on display instead of running from them.
An outspoken activist, Osaka’s participation in the Black Lives Matter protests shows that she doesn’t just think deeply about the public nature of her own life; it’s also important to her that she uses her voice to enact change or start conversation. She believes she’s been given a platform for a reason, and she intends on using it. Aside from the waves Osaka made as the only player to skip a match during a tournament after George Floyd and Jacob Blake’s deaths last summer, it’s clear she hopes to be exemplary on a smaller scale as well. As someone with a half-Japanese half-Haitian mixed identity, how she represents herself outwardly is top of mind. Osaka burdens herself with being a role model for kids who identify with her, and carries those anxieties as well—though she never allows it to stop her from doing what she thinks is right.
Bradley also takes care to remind us that Osaka is human, too, and a young girl at that. Some of the most interesting footage comes when she’s off of the court, not even thinking about tennis, and engaging in other things that bring her joy, like fashion. Her participation in New York Fashion Week is one of the few times during the three episodes that feels like the burden of who she is slips away, and she’s allowed to just exist in the moment, blissfully unbothered by what’s happening outside of it. These moments of respite come few and far between, much like in her life, but help ground us in the full picture of who she is.
There is no doubt that Naomi Osaka is a revolutionary figure in tennis, which has often been a staid and immovable sport that respects tradition almost to a fault. But with the curtains pulled back, there’s one thing for sure: she’ll be changing the game for years to come.
Naomi Osaka premieres Friday, July 16th on Netflix.
Radhika Menon is a pop culture-obsessed writer and filmmaker living in New York City. Her work has appeared in NY Post’s Decider, Teen Vogue, and will be featured in Brown Girl Magazine‘s first ever print anthology. She is a proud alumna of the University of Michigan and thinks she’s funny on Twitter.
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