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Naomi Osaka docuseries puts mental challenges of being the world's best into sharper focus

·4 min read
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It's easy to write an age like it's nothing. 

"Naomi Osaka, 23, withdraws from French Open." 

But it's not nothing and "Naomi Osaka," the three-part Netflix docuseries that drops Friday, puts that age into perspective from the jump. The series, executive produced by LeBron James and Maverick Carter, among others, and directed by Garrett Bradley, covers two historic and formative years of Osaka's life. It begins shortly after she won the 2018 U.S. Open, which serves as the brief open to episode one, through the events of 2020, which lead her to visit her father's homeland after another Grand Slam title in New York. 

In between she moves away from her family, takes on the burden of being No. 1 in the rankings, experiences worldwide fame, switches coaches, plays an Australian Open amid wildfires, loses a mentor in Kobe Bryant, watches George Floyd murdered in Minnesota and speaks out for Black lives. It's a lot for an English sentence, let alone two years as an early 20-something.  

The documentary airs a week before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics begin in her home country, likely the plan of the Film 45 production team all along. But it feels fitting it is released on the streaming giant now, six weeks after Osaka left the French Open for her mental health and skipped Wimbledon for the same reason. Those decisions and the documentary release are not related, but it almost serves as a teaser for the ever-present pressure and struggle Osaka has come upon in the past two years. 

Osaka was 20 years old for her first Grand Slam and the first episode encapsulates how jarring it is to go from a rather unknown tennis player to worldwide superstar. There are camera phones pointed at her constantly and the team around her speaks of the immense pressure she, and they feel. There is tennis training, photo shoots, appearances, responsibilities. It's a lot for anyone, but certainly for an individual who could as easily be a college junior still figuring it out. 

"I think about the show as a three-part meditation that might offer a more personal understanding of the sacrifices that are required," Bradley said in a press release, "the discipline demanded and ultimately, what it means to find personal balance and life purpose as both a young Gen Z woman and a globally recognized athlete."

This is also a young woman moving away from her family for the first time, unable to sleep in her home for two days because she's scared of the new noises. She's every young adult learning how to be alone, and lonely, but opinions are everywhere from everyone. 

And that pressure. It's a constant for Osaka throughout the episodes, from coming into the 2019 US Open as the defending champion and losing in the round of 16 to something as simple as showing up at a fashion show. Even her on-court conversation with American teenager Coco Gauff at that Grand Slam takes on a new perspective given her stated desire to protect the young star from the media and fan pressure she's experienced herself. 

There's also the revelation that she became great to make her mom, Tamaki Osaka, happy and allow her to stop working. If Osaka succeeded, her mother could quit taking on extra hours and sleeping in her car. 

"For me, that was my whole point of playing tennis," Osaka says in confessional-style footage, presumably alone with the camera. "It was honestly either become a champion or probably be broke." 

It was her parents, Tamaki Osaka and Leonard Francois, who wanted their daughters, Naomi and Mari, to become tennis superstars. In the final of the three episodes, Osaka engages in a tough conversation with her parents about being a biracial couple. Her mother is from Japan and her father was born in Haiti, later moving to New York. 

Osaka decides to travel to Haiti to get answers to questions she's long held after a year in which she spoke out for Black lives with their names on her face masks and set out on a major winning streak. 

No one could know when filming began that Osaka, and honestly everyone, would go through the past two years the world has experienced. It's easy to fall into the habit of treating celebrities like objects and forgetting they have real problems and similar challenges. 

Yet "Naomi Osaka" brings that issue back into sharp focus, pulling back the curtains of Twitter notes pondered upon at length before posting — and even well-handled press conferences — to show there is more to everyone than what we want to put out on our own. 

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