When Naomi Osaka chose to bow out of the French Open in favor of her mental health, it felt like the first big strike against the American sporting complex. But her latest project, a self-titled, three-part docuseries on Netflix, feels like the first notes of a death knell. In this series, Osaka has gone beyond the press, beyond the tennis world, and beyond the parameters most athletes have surrounding them, to reach a global audience and tell her story with an unprecedented level of vulnerability and honesty. In three short episodes, she has torn down the wall between herself and the people who watch her and dared every single viewer to stand witness to the dark reality of becoming a champion. What is pivotal about that dare is that, once you’ve felt a shred of what Osaka has shared, there is no seeing tennis or any other sport the same way again.
Typically, a sports documentary follows a story of great triumph or great tragedy, like The Last Dance, Icarus, or Athlete A. But Naomi Osaka doesn’t take such a binary approach to its subject. Instead, the thread that ties all of the episodes together is Osaka herself—as opposed to her US Open 2020 win, which is discussed in the series finale. How she got to that specific win is irrelevant against the backdrop of Osaka’s full and, at times, lonely life. The series begins with Osaka after her historic defeat of Serena Williams at the 2018 Us Open, which was the springboard moment for Osaka’s career but also functions as an unfortunate moment of clarity. “For so long I’ve tied winning to my worth as a person,” Osaka says over footage of her losing matches after the 2018 win. “What am I, if I’m not a good tennis player?”
This fear of inadequacy permeates the entire series. In one scene, Osaka is sitting at a restaurant with her family celebrating her birthday. She leans over to her mother and asks, “Did you think by now I would have accomplished more?” Her mother is clearly taken aback by this question coming from her 22-year old, who by that point had beaten the greatest tennis player in the world and was named the highest-paid female athlete of all time.
She recalls people telling her father that she would never achieve anything and how that fueled her as a child. “I started making a list of all the historic things I could accomplish. Being the first Japanese woman to win a Grand Slam was at the top of my list,” she says. She accomplished this goal in 2018—and yet the joy the win brought her was fleeting.
After her defeat of Williams, Osaka became consumed with forging a champion’s mentality, which she found difficult because of her concerns that she wasn’t good enough or doing enough. “I’m losing because I’m mentally weak,” she says in one tearful scene comparing herself to her mentor, Kobe Bryant.
It is incredibly different to watch someone so young and so full of talent berate themselves and question their worth when their greatness is so plainly visible to everyone else. But it is also oddly refreshing to see an incredible athlete choose to display themselves as a fragile and complex human being. This practice is uncommon for athletes who are still active and still clinging to the top spot, and it is particularly rare for women who have no room in the sports landscape to be both sensitive and champion material. One need look no further than Osaka’s colleague, Serena Williams, who is harangued by the press every time she so much as blinks in a displeasing fashion. Sadness, anger, confidence—these emotions are luxuries for women athletes, and for a Japanese Black woman, they are practically out of reach.
Yet for a little over an hour, Osaka is fully steeped in the full range of human emotion that athletes must manage and at times suppress to do their jobs. Naomi Osaka is raw, it is unrelenting in its sadness, and it is purposefully uncomfortable to watch. For these reasons, it is a necessary thing to watch.
What Naomi Osaka has done by allowing viewers such intimate access to her inner monologue is shatter the false image of the Elite Athlete. She’s done more than show herself as relatable, she’s shown the unvarnished truth and is letting it stand on its own. The responsibility now lies with the fans and sports’ governing bodies to choose how they will change the framework of sports to finally support athletes who have suffered in silence for the pursuit of greatness.
In the final minutes of Naomi Osaka, there is a piece of footage from the 2020 US Open that perfectly sums up the point of the entire docuseries. Osaka is standing in front of a microphone as a reporter asks her what message she was trying to send by wearing the names of murdered Black Americans on her face masks throughout the tournament. In the serene manner she answers all questions, Osaka replies, “Well, what was the message you got?”