Naomi Osaka on Netflix captures a troubled star at her most vulnerable
Naomi Osaka ★★★★
There’s a lot of tennis in Naomi Osaka, as you would expect. But what makes this three-part documentary worth watching is the reflective moments between the endless practice sessions, tournaments and post-game press conferences – moments that reveal the heavy weight of being a heavyweight of the sport.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m a vessel”: those are the first words the 23-year-old Japanese star, with four Grand Slam titles to her name, utters. She’s not talking high-end ocean liner either; more your empty shell variety, a receptacle for the hopes, dreams and aspirations of others.
The three-part documentary captures the Japanese-born tennis player at her most relaxed, and her most vulnerable.Credit:Netflix
It’s a decidedly melancholy tone for a sports doc to take, but one that offers an insight into the life of a professional athlete that feels uncommonly truthful. Sure, she’s the top-earning female athlete of all time, with an income estimated by Forbes at $US60 million in the past year ($US55 million of it from endorsements). But she struggles, with both failure and success. As readers of the sports pages may know, she has spent the past six weeks not playing due to mental health issues (she is due to return to competition representing Japan at the Olympics).
The series covers the period from mid-2019, when she tries and fails to defend her US Open crown, to mid-2020, when she regains it (her other two titles were won in Melbourne, in 2019 and 2021). It doesn’t capture the moment when she withdrew from this year’s French Open rather than be forced to front yet another press conference – “the truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018,” she wrote to her 2.5 million Instagram followers on June 1 – but you can feel it coming.
She talks about her childhood, when she and sister Mari – both homeschooled – practised eight hours a day. “For me it’s really crazy,” she reflects. “This guy from Haiti [father Leonard Francois] somehow met this woman from Japan [mother Tamaki Osaka] and they had a dream of having kids that played tennis.”
Sometimes, she says, her mother would be forced to sleep in her car. “For me that was the whole point of playing tennis. It was either be a champion or probably be broke.”
These are big dreams, big burdens, to place on a child’s shoulders.
Osaka enters the arena for the 2020 US Open wearing a facemask bearing the name of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy who was shot dead by police in Cleveland in 2014.Credit:Netflix
It feels good to watch her finding her voice as the Black Lives Matter protests gather steam, wearing face masks emblazoned with the names of victims of police shootings to each of her seven matches at the 2020 US Open. But it’s sad to hear her pine for the life not lived. “I always wanted the high school experience, like going to college,” she says. “Honestly, I feel like I’m too far down this path to even wonder about what could have been.”
After losing the 2020 Australian Open – another title defence gone awry – she returns to the metaphor with which she began. “I’m sort of like the vessel that everyone’s hard work is put into, and I wasn’t able to do what I was supposed to do,” she says at one of those despised press conferences where the expectation is little less than a baring of the soul. “I don’t really have the champion mentality, which is someone who can deal with not playing 100 per cent. I’ve always wanted to be like that but I still have a long way to go.”
That Naomi Osaka is shy comes as no surprise. That she is so vulnerable, humble and thoughtful is a revelation.
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