After defeating then 23-time Grand Slam winner Serena Williams in the final of the 2018 U.S. Open, a 21-year-old Naomi Osaka became the new focal point of women’s tennis. With mixed Haitian and Japanese parentage, combined with being raised in the U.S. since the age of three, Osaka has made headlines for not only her tennis but her position as the first Asian woman to become World Number 1. This three-episode Netflix documentary series follows her predominantly in the build-up to the 2020 U.S. Open and offers an insight into the life of a sports personality.
The dedication, both physical and mental, required to be a world leader in your chosen endeavour is difficult to imagine, even when it is described and shown to you. A life which yo-yos between endless training centred around deep dive physical science on the one hand, and the glitz of celebrity endorsements and fashion shoots on the other, would form a reality expelling bubble around the strongest of us. One thing that is immediately clear when watching Osaka is that bubble or no, such a life can be overwhelming for someone so shy and so young.
With no narrator and a general lack of direct to camera interviews (what interviews there are mostly consist of Osaka’s Haitian father and Japanese mother), Naomi Osaka floats across your screen in a disconnected unfocused way that is only really anchored by two things: Osaka’s performance in tournaments, and her attempts to find her own way in a life dominated by the endless sport cycle. It appears unrestricted access has been given to a vast library of personal archive footage. The intercutting of family home movies throughout results in more of a mood piece. A linear timeline approach eschewed, in favour of instead painting with broader colours.
To begin with, the prevailing mood is one of an indistinct sadness. Again, we are reminded just how young Naomi Osaka is as she struggles to express her thoughts. Whether training and taking instruction or mooching around her new home seemingly at a loss, Osaka comes across as a young woman driven to succeed but starting to feel the weight of a youth spent endlessly pursuing that goal. During one restaurant scene for her birthday, Osaka drawls out in a slow faltering sentence to her mother a simple question that says so much more than the answer: “Did you think by the time I was 22…I would’ve done more?”
Osaka clearly feels losses deeply. Although this documentary doesn’t cover her recent refusal to participate in post-match interviews (which resulted in her receiving a fine and then withdrawing from the 2021 French Open entirely, citing mental health as a reason) you can clearly see that her introspective discomfort was already there. When a press conference interviewer asks how she feels about a loss, Osaka talks about how she feels guilty for letting down her coach and her team of trainers. “I’m a vessel,” she says. To see oneself as merely the conduit for others’ effort is certainly not a typical statement from a champion sports star.
The result is a documentary that never seems to want to peel back any layers. Instead, the scenes wash over you in an art-house sombre nature that both deadens the lows and smears the highs. You won’t walk away feeling like you have gained much insight, but you will be left with an indelible impression of what life in the bubble is like for someone clearly not well suited to it. It is telling that Naomi Osaka comes to life as she finds the strength to take action on social issues. Her attendance at a Black Lives Matter march and her decision during the 2020 U.S. Open to wear pointed masks prominently displaying the names of those who died as a result of police brutality showcase a side to her yearning to get out. The tennis is almost a curiosity in comparison.
Words by Mike Record