The just released docuseries follows Naomi Osaka, four time grand slam champion, as she navigates the pressure of being the world champion, the relentless media scrutiny that comes with that and trying to have some semblance of a normal life amidst it all. The series is three episodes long, starting with her US Open win against Serena Williams in 2018 and ending with her fourth grand slam win in the US Open in 2020.
The soft spoken Osaka sporadically narrates from recordings she makes on her phone but if you are expecting the immersive tell-all that we’ve come to expect from this type of documentary, you’ll be disappointed.
Instead, director Garret Bradley maintains a distance between ‘us’ and Osaka. Filming for the series ended a year ago, before Osaka’s decision to pull out of the French Open to protect her mental health. She cited the 2018 US Open and the media circus that followed the final as the start of her struggle with maintaining her mental health. No reference is made to the match where Serena Williams openly disagreed with the official and was penalized a game for it. After, Williams was framed in media reporting after the game as aggressive, belligerent and entitled against Osaka. That final and the ensuing coverage was Osaka’s introduction into mainstream pop culture and it gained her- for better or for worse - global attention. The images of her stoic acceptance of the trophy as she held back tears were widely circulated in sports news and across social media.
The film pulls focus to the cameras and fans in any scene where they are present, bringing attention to them in a way that we would never see. We are made just as aware of the cameras and the thousands of people looking at her as she is. Osaka does not fit the stereotypical larger-than-life champion athlete. In the place of swagger and outright confidence, she is quiet and considerate of those around her. Instead of charm and charisma, we see her be earnest and kind. This may lead you to assume that she is a push-over and unsuited to the pressures of a tennis world champion. But it is those things that make her the champion she is and I think, may help her avoid the harm that fame at those levels can cause to a person.
After she beat then 15-year-old Coco Gauff in straight sets, she asked the teenager to do the interview on the court with her. When Gauff says that she’ll just cry through it all, Osaka says, “Better to cry on the court than in the showers.” An odd thing for a person who is uncomfortable with all the attention she gets to say but as the series goes on, we see Osaka live in the contradictions that her life demands. I take her advice to Gauff as proof of her approach… If you are going to see her make mistakes, see her lose and see her win, in every aspect of her life, then you are going to see her be human and cry.
When I came to the end, I felt like the docuseries sought out to be about a young woman in her early twenties, trying to live her dream and live her life at the same time even though those two goals are at constant odds with each other. When she fails (even when no one notices) she feels like everyone is disappointed in her. She comes off as remarkably self aware and independent, always thinking about what the right decision is for her and for those around her.
Twice, Osaka describes herself as a vessel. Once, at the beginning of the series when she’s talking about her game and how she plays. Again, when she is talking to the press after a loss to Coco Gauff. She says she’s the vessel that everyone’s hard work is put into. She is certainly a vessel for the press and a vessel for the fans who may see her as inspiration and channel their hopes and ambitions through her. We also see her accept this role and the platform that she has to bring attention to issues that she cares about, that is mental health awareness and the black lives matter movement.
A champion athlete’s life is abnormal from the start. Osaka started playing tennis when she was 3. Long before most children were even thinking into the next week, she was making decisions based on how they would get her to the grand slam final in years to come. She is a powerful force on and off the court, made that way by circumstance and whatever it is that champions are born with. She faces a lot of pressure to bow to the media and current toxic fan culture but she seems to be doing a great job resisting it.
I’ll be cheering her on at the Olympics. This was a revealing ( and I want to say respectful) watch.