WHERE TO WATCH:
WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
This intimate series follows Naomi Osaka as she explores her cultural roots and navigates her multifaceted identity as a tennis champ and rising leader.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
Naomi Osaka. I'm going to be honest, if anyone had mentioned her name to me three or more years ago, I wouldn't know who they were talking about. But then, on Saturday, 8 September 2018, everything changed.
Naomi Osaka is a documentary about a 23-year-old tennis player who has been under a media microscope since she beat one of the best tennis players in the world. While to the average Joe, it doesn't sound so bad, director Garrett Bradley and Osaka herself offer a glimpse of how mentally damaging that can be. Furthermore, the three-part documentary, which essentially is a 110-minute film with 'ad breaks', acts as a window into the pressure – from personal to political to marketing – placed on young athletes.
After her 2018 US Open victory over Serena Williams, Osaka became an overnight sporting sensation. The four-time Grand Slam winner is now giving her fans, followers and biggest critics an inside view of the last two-and-a-half years, from winning the US Open at age 20 to losing the following year before seeking to reclaim it in 2020. Viewers also get to know Osaka a little better – from her Japanese and Haitian ancestry to how she dealt with the grief of Kobe Bryant's tragic death after he mentored her and how she found her voice as an activist when taking a stand in the Black Lives Matter movement.
A friend said to me the other day, "Oh, Naomi Osaka is withdrawing from tournaments because she doesn't want to do interviews. How silly is that!" And admittedly, I rolled my eyes and never gave it much thought. But now I understand. Listening to Osaka grapple with her doubts and insecurities and watching her learn what it means to lose when her life has been built on the foundations of winning are moments in which she is very obviously fighting an internal battle. This just proves that no one could ever know what another person might be going through despite what they see on the outside.
Speaking about the timely release of her documentary on Twitter, Osaka wrote: "This is in some ways my soul and a reflection of who I am. I hope there are pieces that people can relate to and maybe other pieces that would help people understand why I make the choices I make."
Some of these choices include withdrawing from the French Open after she was fined $15 000 and threatened with Grand Slam disqualification for refusing to attend mandatory press conferences – which she very clearly stated she would not be participating in before the tournament started. Following the withdrawal, Osaka revealed that she has struggled with "long bouts of depression" since winning her first Grand Slam in a lengthy Instagram post. In addition, she penned an opened letter, published in TIME magazine, suggesting that media allow athletes "a mental break from media scrutiny".
Osaka then withdrew from Wimbledon for the sake of her well-being and to prepare for the Tokyo Olympic Games.
The reason why I've reported on these recent incidents in my review is that they are the stepping stones illustrated in Osaka's journey to finding herself. Yes, I believe that the documentary's release, the withdrawals and feature articles are perfect timing in the build-up to the Olympics. But, I also believe that Osaka has been knocked down over the last two-and-a-half years and is now standing up and learning how to function in the public eye on her own terms.
Throughout the documentary, the Japanese tennis player repeatedly questions who she would be if she wasn't good at tennis. But by the third episode, we see her perspective change to what she can do with the platform she has earned from being a great tennis player. It started with her activism for the BLM movement, and it now continues with her activism for mental health.
Naomi Osaka has a slow pace that may not suit those who prefer power shots. But it infuses seemingly mundane events with poignancy and says more than it appears to at first. Osaka is profoundly introspective and excruciatingly self-critical, but she is also determined to find her place in the world, be it on the court or off.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE: