Tennis, the media, the world… everything is moving around Naomi Osaka. And in this frantic race where her success has propelled her, Osaka has not stopped moving for at least two years. Released on July 16 on Netflix, a documentary series on her career allows us to replay this dazzling rise in slow motion and to discover the mental universe of this Japanese athlete of Haitian origin, who lit the the Olympic cauldron at the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games .
If the first sequences of this docu-series visit moments of her childhood, it is not to psychoanalyze Osaka nor to share educational tips to parents interested in raising future stars like her. The genesis of her life is certainly told. Her father, Léonard François, is Haitian, her mother, Tamaki Osaka, Japanese. As the father did not feel accepted in Japanese society, they chose to raise their two Japanese-born daughters in the United States. Along with Mari, her older sister, Naomi began playing tennis at the age of 3. “So many people told my father that I would never amount to anything,” she recalls.
But this series titled Naomi Osaka is not the father’s nor the mother’s success story. You won’t find their voices predominant. The privileged perspective is that of the interested party herself: Naomi Osaka. Not the child, but the young woman who, in search of meaning and balance, chronicles her career and her life. In fact, she had dreamed of this career at a very early age, imagining herself becoming the first Japanese tennis player to win a Grand Slam tournament.
At twenty years old, she fulfilled that dream at the 2018 US Open. In the final, her surprise victory over her idol Serena Williams catapulted her to the center of everyone ‘s attention. A new tennis star was born. And since that night, nothing has been the same for her. “I feel like the last two years I’ve just been going through the motions,” she reflects out loud.
In tennis, there is no shortage of tournaments. One follows another as an opportunity for talent to win a new trophy but also to be challenged. All the conditions are met for physical and psychological fatigue. This year, if her boycott of press conferences during the Roland Garros tournament and then her withdrawal from it invited a debate on the role of the media and the taboo of addressing mental health in pro sports, these decisions were motivated by her need for mental rest.
It is still risky to shoot an intimate film about the star, when her intimacy seems to be quite known through her own publications on social media, and the incessant coverage in the press. With this abundance of content, the danger of falling into redundancy is not far. But the director Garrett Bradley preferred to turn this into an asset, using in some scenes the selfies filmed by Osaka herself. As if the series was a pretext to assemble the pieces of a personal story, which would otherwise be scattered in tabloids, on Tiktok or Instagram, without perspective or context.
So it’s the metamorphosis of an athlete that over the course of the three episodes of this series unfolds before our eyes. “Deep inside me, the unsaid things are piling up. I want to speak up but at the same time I’m afraid. I’m supposed to keep my mouth shut and behave myself so I don’t break my image,” she confides. But during the 2020 New York Grand Slam, her expression of social commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement finally cracked her mask. For each of the seven winning matches leading up to her second US Open title, she entered the court wearing a black mask with the name of one of the recent victims of US police brutality.
Not only did this activism allow Osaka to make a social cause resonate and triumph on the field of sport at a hot moment of the protests. But thanks to this, the introverted athlete has also managed to find her own voice, that of a champion willing and aware of being able to move tennis, the media, and why not, the world around her.
Of course, there is a promotional side to this type of quasi-autobiographical documentary about a still-active athlete. Many films like that are produced, at the moment, by the big streaming platforms. This undoubtedly delights all the fans curious to have a more intimate gaze on their idols.
But in Naomi Osaka, many moments of confession and scenes like the ones about Haiti also show a generosity and a desire for sincerity that go far beyond branding. Unless all of this is also part of the Osaka brand.