Protect Naomi Osaka at all costs. Most people will never know what it’s like to be a 23-year-old sports-title winner. To be thrown into the spotlight after beating your idol on a world stage. Many of us will never battle the duality of maturing in the public eye while protecting our youth and finding our footing as a formidable Black woman in a world that tends to minimize our potential. But this is Naomi Osaka’s world.
In Naomi Osaka, the three-part Netflix documentary that was executive-produced by LeBron James and Maverick Carter (now streaming), viewers get to see the tennis star navigate stardom following her 2018 win at the U.S. Open. (She was 20 at the time.) If nothing else, the deeply introspective film explains Osaka’s recent decision to withdraw from the French Open, but mostly it humanizes her existence, as a young adult first and an internationally known titleholder second. Osaka is much more than her wins and losses, her post-game interviews, and her headline-making decisions. She is a young woman working through internal and external pressures, and she’s doing it with a grace that far exceeds her years.
Whether you’re a tennis fan or not, what will likely resonate with viewers is Osaka’s vulnerability in expressing her fears and anxieties. Self-doubt is a daunting challenge for anybody, and in Naomi Osaka’s world, it’s likely her greatest yet. To be clear, the doc isn’t a somber tale of what goes wrong when stardom hits; it’s more of a gentle reminder that public figures aren’t merely what we see on the surface.
While most of the film revolves around Osaka’s time on the court, it’s also nice to see the star athlete interacting with her boyfriend, spending quality time with her sister and parents, and exploring her interest in fashion. Beyond wielding her racket, she is coming into her own as a cover girl and a clothing designer. She’s also finding her identity in a world that sometimes asks her to choose.
Though race isn’t a central theme in the film, it’s hard to ignore the impact culture has had on her young life. Her father is from Haiti and her mother from Japan. She lives in the United States but was born in the East Asian country that she now represents. She should not have to pick a singular identity or pledge sole allegiance to a particular ethnicity or nationality, but she’s often asked to. And though she does a good enough job on her own explaining her decision to her detractors, I wish, for her, that defending who she is wasn’t a burden she has to carry. She’s entitled to stand with Black Lives Matter and still play for the country that birthed her. She’s allowed to set up a tennis foundation in Haiti while still posing for the cover of a Japanese glossy. This film uncovers just how deep her duality goes, and it’s quite beautiful to see.
As a woman more than 10 years Osaka’s senior, I spent two hours watching this documentary on an emotional journey. It’s hard not to root for her achievements, celebrate her personal highs, and want to reach out with open arms during those moments when her self-confidence falters. But that’s exactly what makes this film worth watching. In a very MTV Diary way, it gets you as close to the tennis star as most people will ever get. And at the end of it all, you simply want her to win.
Tanya Christian is a writer and editor based in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @tanyaachristian.