Netflix TV review: Noami Osaka
Written by Arthur
Rating This candid documentary about Naomi Osaka is a timely, thoughtful study of the pressure facing modern athletes.
“I think I’m going to take a break from playing for a while,” announced Naomi Osaka this week, after losing in the third round at the 2021 US Open. Ranked third in the world and defending her 2020 US Open title, her exit from the American Grand Slam was a shock, but not as surprising as her comments in the ensuing press conference. They come after several interviews in which she has spoken about the pressure she faces as a professional athlete, and her Netflix documentary series gives us an insightful context to those remarks and the important conversations that have arisen around them.
The series is split into three episodes, each one loosely examining a different aspect of her career to date. The first episode focuses on winning, specifically the aftermath of her star-making victory over Serena Williams that gave Naomi her first Grand Slam trophy. That was only a few years ago, in 20178, and the win itself came after an umpire forfeited a game from Williams, giving Osaka a slight advantage. Whether that played a part in the uncertainty and introspection that followed isn’t delved into here, but what is clear is just how dramatic the thrust into the spotlight was, and that Osaka’s been adjusting ever since.
The second episode explores the more challenging area of losing, where the pressure Osaka feels to perform and meet high expectations is compounded still further. There’s a through-line here that feeds into her own questions about her identity, which is invested heavily in her ability and success as a tennis player – if she doesn’t win a match, does that make her less of a person?
Director Garrett Bradley, who recently helmed the powerful documentary Time, opens up these internal worries with a poignant, sensitive touch. Given access to home videos as well as post-match interview footage, Bradley paints a considered portrait of a sportsperson in the professional arena, not just giving us a glimpse of the sense of humour that balances out Osaka’s softly spoken demeanour but also capturing some of the loneliness that can affect all professional athletes, as they have to allow their chosen sport to define and shape their daily lives.
Shots of mundane, everyday events often happen at a slight remove to emphasise it, but there’s no doubting the personal intimacy that’s on the table here: while there are interviews with the people around Osaka, it’s the snatches of exchanges between her and her parents that really speak volumes. Bradley intercuts all these sequences with self-filmed videos from Osaka’s phone, which serve as confessionals about what she’s going through. And, in a year that also includes the Covid-19 pandemic and her grieving the death of her mentor Kobe Bryant, there’s a lot that she’s going through.
Episode 3 takes all of these things and builds them into momentum, as Osaka looks to the future and moving forwards. As she chooses to play for Japan instead of America, she speaks openly about how that decision changes the way that Americans perceive her as a person of colour. Despite feelings of otherness, she also expresses her solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement by wearing face masks during the 2020 US Open sporting the names of different victims of police brutality. This awareness of what she can represent and what she can do with her high-profile position is informed by a visit to Haiti, the home country of her dad, where she learns about its history.
It’s a deceptive amount of material to pack into three episodes, and yet there’s still a sense of something lacking. That’s not because a lack of candour on Osaka’s part; the series adopts a slow-burn approach that matches the tone set by the moment Osaka’s at when this is made. Rather it’s because, after taking the time to understand Osaka’s experiences, the series leaves you wanting more, both in terms of what she does next and how things change in sport and the media’s treatment of athletes as discussions around mental health become less taboo. A timely, thoughtful watch.