tv review

Naomi Osaka Is the Story of a Work in Progress

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

In Naomi Osaka, the Netflix docuseries about perhaps the most successful, softly outspoken tennis champions of her generation, there are many moments that speak to the pressure Osaka, just 23, has faced during the past two years. But perhaps nothing conveys it more effectively than the sound of a tennis ball smacking against a racket head or bouncing off a court’s surface, over and over again.

Director Garrett Bradley, nominated for an Academy Award earlier this year for her documentary Time, amplifies that metronomic rhythm in scenes when Osaka is playing the game, and some when she isn’t. That sound, the smack of forehand after forehand, is the heartbeat of Osaka’s life and, like Osaka’s standards for herself, it is relentless, urgent, and inescapable. It is also reflective of Bradley’s immersive and intimate approach to this portrait of a tennis champion, one that doesn’t merely seek to explain who Naomi Osaka is, but to make the audience feel how it feels to be her.

Premiering Friday, Naomi Osaka is divided into three episodes — “Rise,” “Champion Mentality,” and “New Blueprint” — that reflect the arc of Osaka’s career without including some of the more recent events in that timeline, specifically her withdrawal in May from the French Open. Prior to the start of that tournament, she announced on Instagram that she would not participate in post-match press conferences for mental-health reasons, noting that the process of answering questions, especially after a loss, often feels like “kicking a person while they are down.” After her first-round win, French Open officials fined her $15,000 for skipping the press conference and threatened to default her from both that competition and future Grand Slams — so Osaka withdrew from the tournament the next day. She issued a statement that she was trying to exercise self-care after suffering bouts of depression following the 2018 U.S. Open and experiencing anxiety during Q&As. The next month, she withdrew from Wimbledon to (according to her agent) take “some personal time with friends and family.”

While all of this happened too late to be included in the Netflix series, Osaka’s mental health and struggles to maintain equilibrium remain front and center. After losing to Belinda Bencic at the 2019 U.S. Open, Osaka talks about needing to “mentally take a break.” At times, she wonders about her identity outside tennis: “For so long I’ve tied winning to my worth as a person. What am I if I’m not a good tennis player?” Following her loss to Coco Gauff at last year’s Australian Open, Osaka films herself taking a late-night stroll — “It’s either walk or don’t sleep and lose my mind” — and reflecting on the then-fresh loss of Kobe Bryant, her friend and mentor.

“I’m supposed to carry on his mentality in tennis, and here I am … I haven’t won a Grand Slam, like, I’m losing matches because I’m mentally weak,” she says through sniffles, looking directly into her phone camera. No one, it seems, is harder on Osaka than Osaka herself.

Contrary to her inner monologue and the narrative spun by French Open officials and some tennis observers, this daughter of a Japanese mother and a Haitian father comes across not as weak but as deeply introspective. In snippets of press conferences included in the series, the four-time Grand Slam winner seems very capable of answering questions. After she loses the Australian Open to Gauff, journalists ask how devastated she is. She responds more honestly and articulately than most athletes in postgame interviews. “I’m sort of like the vessel that everyone’s hard work is put into, and I wasn’t able to, like, do what I was supposed to do,” she says. The problem isn’t that Osaka is too meek to speak — it’s that she absorbs public feedback through her every pore.

Tennis is a lonely sport, especially the singles game. It seems as if there’s only one person who can be blamed for errors, and those mistakes affect everyone in a player’s orbit: coaches, trainers, parents, sponsors. With great care and empathy, Bradley — who was given extraordinary access to her subject — shows how much that weighs on Osaka, who has spent her entire life working toward winning titles. Old home movies of the future star, made shortly after her family moved from Japan to the U.S. when she was 3 years old, show her running around on a tennis court with her sister, Mari, both of them swinging rackets nearly as big as their bodies.

Bradley was nominated for an Academy Award for her 2020 documentary Time, which followed a Louisiana woman’s long battle to relieve her husband from an unjust prison sentence. Just as she was in the making of that film, Bradley is sensitive to the minutiae of Osaka’s life. Moments that might seem small become significant through the filmmaker’s lens — as when Osaka, having just settled into her own home, moves her U.S. Open trophy from a prominent perch and replaces it with a piece of art from her sister. Naomi Osaka acknowledges how the athlete’s multiracial identity and family history have shaped who she has become; at one point, while describing the financial hardships of her early childhood, Osaka says, “It was either become a champion or probably be broke.”

While this series is less aggrandizing than a lot of sports documentaries, it still asserts a very specific point of view. The first episode covers Osaka’s 2018 U.S. Open victory over Serena Williams, her childhood hero. It makes clear the significance of the win — Osaka was the first Japanese player of any gender to win a Grand Slam — and how delighted, and rattled, Osaka is afterward. But Bradley also leaves out some major contextual details in her telling: The umpire, perceiving that Williams was being coached while playing, imposed code violations against her. Williams denied she was coached and went on to argue with the umpire for the rest of the match. When Osaka beat her, some spectators claimed the match had been stolen; they booed during the trophy ceremony and made Osaka cry.

We don’t see any of that conflict in the Netflix series. At first, it seems like a glaring oversight. By the end of Naomi Osaka, though, it registers as a deliberate choice, one that avoids painting Osaka as a victim and establishes her instead as an individual. There’s a version of Osaka’s story that could have characterized her as Williams’s Gen-Z descendant, a young woman of color with great power in her stroke and high visibility as a cultural figure off the court. (In 2020, Osaka surpassed Williams to become the highest-paid female athlete in the world.) Bradley takes pains to define Osaka on her own terms outside the longest shadow in women’s tennis. As proof of the player’s agency, the series emphasizes Osaka’s decision to speak out against racial injustice last summer by withdrawing from the semifinals at the Western & Southern Open and wearing face masks that highlighted the names of victims of police violence during the U.S. Open.

Osaka’s constant acknowledgments of her own fallibility feel new, a change from the hypermanaged images and aggro intensity that have characterized some of the major tennis stars of the past. Naomi Osaka — released a week before Osaka heads to the Tokyo Olympics — is very clearly the first chapter in this player’s story. It reveals a global athletic star just beginning to understand that the ball is truly in her court.

Naomi Osaka Is the Story of a Work in Progress