Director: Garrett Bradley
Cast: Naomi Osaka
Genre: Documentary mini-series
In most documentaries, an individual finds redemption through a sport. The fragility of being human is accessed through the lens of winning and losing. But the most remarkable thing about Naomi Osaka is that, somewhere along the three-part docuseries, you can sense the sport seeking redemption – and evolving – through an individual. The futility of winning and losing is accessed through the lens of being human. This is the story of someone who hits the ball without playing the game. This is the story of the most important tennis player on the planet. This is also not a story, it’s a state of mind.
Tennis is, in many ways, the visual currency of loneliness. Watching the sport is like watching two introverts trying to have a coherent conversation in a roomful of spectators. The room goes silent when they start speaking – every word is scrutinized, every turn of phrase judged, every intonation dissected – and erupts when a statement is made. Yet, the one thing they can’t afford to have is a voice. Because nobody is really listening. Pro-tennis life is designed to make missile-eyed robots out of artists: Be in a bubble, block out the noise, eat, sleep, travel, train, repeat. There is no time to dwell on the outside world, or worse, on yourself. The consistency of the game’s greats – Laver, Graff, Navratilova, Sampras or even active ones like Williams, Federer, Nadal, Djokovic – is the stuff of legend. What’s rarely mentioned, however, is the fact that all of them are children of a pre-digital age – back when isolation and tunnel vision were still plausible skills to nurture. Back when being better meant being the best.
The new-age player has struggled to scale those dizzying heights because it is infinitely harder to be single-minded today. The cacophony exists even in a vacuum. Growing up in the social media era brings with it an added sense of awareness and empathy – traits that cruelly morph into vulnerability on court. Emotions weaken resolve. Feelings don’t win Grand Slams. At one point during this docu-series, a 22-year-old Naomi Osaka all but admits this, lamenting her own lack of “champion mentality” after a third-round exit in Melbourne. But the reason Naomi Osaka is a milestone portrait in the sports-doc genre is because it recalibrates the grammar of greatness. It equates the pursuit of excellence with the convolutions of living. Rather than examine a life that contorts to fit the parameters of a tennis court, Naomi Osaka reveals a girl whose “human mentality” is forcing tennis to fit the parameters of life. A celebrity whose sensitivity is not an ailment but a cure. An introvert who starts conversations – of mental health, race, identity, fame – with her voice. And a superstar for whom sports is both the stage and the podium. That she’s won four Grand Slams aged 23 is nearly a footnote, and enduring proof that the bubble need not transcend the noise.
The docu-series opens with footage of the 2018 US Open final. Naomi Osaka – then known simply as a promising player of Japanese and Haitian heritage – is facing her idol, Serena Williams. She wins, but looks awkward, almost embarrassed, during the presentation ceremony. The cameras capture her deer-in-headlights face – a recurring image for the rest of the series. The commentator asks: This is going to change her life, isn’t it? Echoes of the last Black-Asian superstar, Tiger Woods, hang in the New York air. Yet, there’s more. The context isn’t shown but it’s important: A match destined to announce Osaka’s arrival on the world stage was overshadowed by Williams’ infamous tirade towards chair umpire Carlos Ramos. Osaka’s triumph becomes a formality. So when we see her holding the trophy aloft, her apologetic frown resembles fright. She’s in a daze, like a child who’s discovered that Santa Claus isn’t real. In light of what this docu-series explores, it’s safe to assume that this is perhaps the moment young Naomi Osaka realizes that there is more to tennis than tennis itself. Serena’s meltdown extended to reasons beyond the game: a history, a culture, a deep-set systemic prejudice. Osaka’s illusion is shattered. She suspects that, from hereon, every ball she hits will need to trace the trajectory between who she is and where she comes from.
A lot of the docuseries thinking about what Osaka is thinking, while also honouring her honesty to do so. The result is an enchanting, brooding hybrid of narrative nonfiction and personal commentary
Of course, none of this is explicitly said. In fact none of anything is said at all. The beauty of Naomi Osaka lies in what – and how – it suggests. Oscar-nominated director Garrett Bradley (Time) seems to be both studying and observing the soft-spoken Osaka at once. She recognizes the irony of following a player averse to the limelight, and so trains her cameras to reflect Osaka’s contemplative nature. A lot of it is thinking about what Osaka is thinking, while also honouring her honesty to do so. The result is an enchanting, brooding hybrid of narrative nonfiction and personal commentary. Much of the three episodes shows a lost, nervous Osaka going through the motions of being a public figure: endorsement shoots, talk shows, interviews, pressers, airports, entourages. An early scene depicts her looking like a stranger in her new Los Angeles home. The talking heads are conventional – an Asian mother, a black father, a new coach – but the headspace is unmistakably Osaka’s. Every thought she expresses adopts the adolescent tone of a lingering question: a hallmark of someone still confronting the intricacies of language. Shot over a year between the 2019 US Open and the rescheduled 2020 US Open, the cameras always appear to find Osaka in a crowd, slowly cutting through the din and zooming in on her – as though she were Rose Dawson on a sinking Titanic, a forlorn and outwardly privileged fictional character hoping to blend into the real background. Or, uncannily, Sadness from Pixar’s Inside Out: a melancholic emotion steadily realizing that it can unlock the future. And that it is, for better or worse, the ultimate component of truth.
The series addresses the viewer’s overwhelming urge to reach out and shield Osaka from the wolves, especially in the way it chooses the fans that speak about – as opposed to of – her. All three of them are warm middle-aged women – a version of watchful mothers – with one even picking up on Osaka’s instinctive ability to shrug off mistakes on court. Which is why the most moving moment of Naomi Osaka features a role reversal of sorts. After sweeping to a straight-sets win, a 21-year-old Osaka snaps out of the zone and displays genuine maternal concern for her teary 15-year-old opponent, Coco Gauff. Osaka breaks protocol and invites her to do an on-court interview together and, at some level, consciously protects Gauff from the crushing loneliness of being a teenage prodigy. “It’s better than crying alone in the dressing room,” Osaka tells her, flooding the stadium with a brand of compassion that’s often reduced to the cultural restrictiveness of ‘sportsmanship’. The docuseries frames this moment as a catalyst in a larger coming-of-age narrative. It understands that her kindness towards Gauff at the 2019 US Open has little to do with the sport itself, sandwiching it between a Serena-shaped awakening in 2018 and a Black-Lives-Matter reckoning in 2020. Each of the three American tournaments represents both a time and a platform: a stage of personal growth as well as a stage for cultural education.
This deceptively intimate docu-series suggests that her sport is not a journey but a consequence
That the series culminates with Osaka winning the Slam to make a statement – seven matches on the trot, yes, but also seven BLM masks sporting the names of seven black victims of police brutality – ties in with a humane sense of purpose rather than a robotic reclamation of skill. Winning becomes a means to an end, and amounts to something more than just defeating other people. The tennis Osaka plays becomes a conversation, not with an opponent but with the world at large. In a way, this deceptively intimate docu-series suggests that her sport is not a journey but a consequence. Osaka needs a reason to be good, and being the best tennis player simply isn’t good enough. She dislikes being a frontrunner, a favourite, a defending champion, because her championing requires a cause that’s uninhibited by competitive glory. Even as I write this, a quick Youtube search for Osaka’s latest throws up a Tokyo Olympics spot. The tagline reads: “If you don’t fit the expectation, change it”.
Her decision to pull out of this year’s French Open (and Wimbledon) feels like an extension of what we see in Naomi Osaka. Many believe that she is challenging the metronomical traditionalism of tennis. But maybe she’s only reminding the gatekeepers that they don’t hold the key to who she – and millions like her – strive to be. Tennis is after all not her literature but her language. And silence, as the saying goes, speaks louder than words. On that note, perhaps the most significant element of this series is its score: a rousing orchestral string piece that one usually associates with “epiphany” moments of a biopic. It brings to mind the soundtrack of The Truman Show, a film about an Average Joe who slowly discovers that he is the star of the world’s biggest reality show. He comes to comprehend that his life is the most expensive lie ever told. 5000 hidden cameras have been capturing every breath he takes. The town is one giant artificial bubble. In the final scene, the creator of the show urges Truman to stay: “there’s no more truth out there than there is in the world I created for you”. And yet, a defiant Naomi Osaka opens the exit door – and steps into the noise. The viewers rejoice. In case we don’t see her, she wishes us Good Afternoon, Good Evening and Good Night.