Being a professional athlete brings with it many pressures, and not all of them have to do with game performance. The personal lives of those who travel the world playing on a court or field often become public, and an athlete’s heritage or background can lead to questions repeatedly being asked at press conferences and games that either purposely or unintentionally serve to undermine their legitimacy or ability. Tennis pro Naomi Osaka has, in her still-budding career, managed to get ahead of the story, as fascinatingly explored in a new Netflix documentary series of the same name.
Osaka is only twenty-three and has already established herself as a true presence on the tennis court. After her first appearance in the Women’s Tennis Association Tour at age sixteen, Osaka has steadily built her reputation, earning the distinction from the WTA of Newcomer of the Year in 2016 and achieving the group’s number one ranking only three years later. Her next stop is the Tokyo Olympics later this month.
Osaka’s game play is just one of her defining features. One aspect of who she is that this series chooses to explore in depth is her heritage. Osaka’s father is Haitian and her mother is Japanese, and she grew up in the United States after her family moved from Japan when she was three. Osaka is officially the first Asian player to be ranked number one by the WTA and, despite being raised in America, represents her home country of Japan whenever she plays.
Osaka’s racial identity is a subject that brings it with complicated and often negative reactions from fans, some who accuse her of not being appropriately African-American, to which she responds that there are Black people everywhere. She also sees that her prominence and visibility is an asset, and opts to use the need for masks in the COVID-19 pandemic to display the names of Black people who have been killed by police on her own face during high-profile interviews.
This series is divided up into three episodes which run between thirty-two and forty-two minutes. A significant portion of the content is, predictably, footage of the games, which serves multiple purposes. It is involving to watch, and the game moves quickly enough that even those who aren’t fans of tennis should find sufficient value in their inclusion. Seeing how Osaka moves on the court and particularly how she responds to her opponents is very informative about the kind of player and person that she is. One heartwarming moment finds her insisting that Coco Gauff, the player she has just defeated, join her to do the postmatch interview together.
Osaka’s story is in exceptional hands with director Garrett Bradley, who last helmed the passionate and heartbreaking documentary Time, which received an Oscar nomination last year. Bradley approaches Osaka with sensitivity, and there is a timelessness to this format, one that meets her when she already is the pro she is now and travels circularly around her to learn how she came to be that way, stopping to speak with her parents about how they see her and incorporating copious amounts of available game footage. Framing her own activism within the context of athletes kneeling to underline that Black Lives Matter is quite a powerful showcase.
A documentary series titled with someone’s name should, of course, spend a good deal of time actually hearing from them, and this one does. Listening to Osaka speak about how Kobe Bryant’s death has affected her because of the mentor relationship they had is poignant, and that focus on personal identity in episode two transitions seamlessly into a resounding demonstration of her self-expression on a global stage in episode three. Those who know little about Osaka should find themselves very well informed after watching, and existing fans will surely gain a deeper appreciation for the groundbreaking talent with an even more incredible future sure to come.
Naomi Osaka is now streaming exclusively on Netflix.