Netflix Series – The Absorbing Mystery of Naomi Osaka

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Photo by Getty Images

Bill Simons

Naomi Osaka is fascinating.

Just four days after her new $29.99 Barbie doll sold out in a flash, Netflix began to air its three-part docuseries on her. It begins with the iconic star telling us how ridiculous it is that she gets so much attention. Then, for about two hours, she gives millions a revealing and well-woven deep-dive into almost all things Osaka.

We see her as a fashion-loving, creative, vulnerable, lonely, nerdy, hard-working tennis player who, after losing to Coco Gauff, walked the late-night streets of Melbourne. Osaka tells us, “There are more important things in the world than tennis.”

She wonders if she’s doing enough for Japan’s black kids. Then, she single handedly leads a one-day racial justice boycott that for the first time ever brings  to its knees.

Her smiling Haitian father, Leonard Francois – a kind of Richard Williams for millennials – poignantly confides, “It feels like she is standing up for me…She’s standing on the right side of history.”

In the hands of the gifted young New York documentarian, Garrett Bradley, we clearly grasp the strength of Osaka, who emerged from a “be a champion or be broke” Darwinian world to become tennis’ first ever Asian No. 1. Her coach Wim Fissette says she knows everything she needs to know – she doesn’t need much help. So we see her running up and down stadium steps as part of the tedium of soul-deadening practice sessions. In other words, we see her sweat.

And we see her shine. From the Big Apple to Tokyo, at snazzy red carpet events or at high-tech every-detail-must-be-perfect photo shoots, we see teams of nervous fashionistas and PR handlers fuss over her as they project the icon to the glam is good summits of high fashion. “OMG,” a triumphant worker gushes, “It’s Fashion Week and you just had your own show!”

Naomi relishes the glitz, but is understated and rather bemused. She usually is. She doesn’t want to get drunk on the champagne.

But underneath she wonders, her psyche churns. There’s deep reflection and a pervasive doubt. Vulnerability and a string of existential crises repeatedly seem to define her journey. Her inner world is its own restless universe.

Welcome to Naomi’s world: the Japanese-Haitian woman who is also incredibly American, who left Japan when she was three and that same year began to play on public courts and later endured eight-hour-a-day practice sessions. While Osaka’s mother Tamiki had been shaped by rigid, follow-in-our-shadows parents, her dad never felt at home in Japan. Candid and appealing, Francois reveals with the slightest hint of bitterness that, “No matter what someone does as an immigrant, in Japan you are never fully Japanese. So we had our obstacles within our marriage and parental and how they look at us.”

Tamaki, who Naomi so resembles, recalls that as they raised their children in Japan, New York and then Florida, “Things were kind of choppy on and off.”

While Tamaki worked overtime and at multiple up-at-dawn jobs, Naomi emerged as a giggly kid who was tight with her older sister Mari. But she was never exposed to the rough-and-tumble gauntlet of school life with its bullies and brutes, its cliques and crises that inevitably build emotional resilience. Serena recently said, “I’m thick, Naomi’s thin.”

The views and questions of others seem to have an inordinate impact on her psyche. Early on doubters said she wouldn’t succeed. She bristled. More recently reporters asked her what she has to do to transfer her hard court dominance to the French Open or Wimbledon. She chose to boycott pressers. At times she feels she’s the victim.

With her we observe a certain fragility. It draws us in, it arouses our curiosity, it evokes our sympathy. Just after a loss, she contends she doesn’t have “a champion’s mind.” But you could have fooled us. Her on-court match toughness is legendary, she’s won four grand Slam titles and long ago said to be the future of women’s tennis.

Naomi tells us she’s stuck in the moment. Her whirlwind world of long flights and global celebrity is a blur. And always there’s intrusive pressure, whether on court at the infamous 2018 US Open final or after a stunning Fed Cup loss in Spain.

The documentary gives us intimate glimpses. Even as an infant in a stroller, baby Osaka seemed surprisingly pensive. Decades later, as Naomi and her sister chatter while unpacking at Naomi’s new $6.9 million Beverly Hills mansion, we are reminded of how Serena once complained, “Shopping for chandeliers is so tiresome.” Meanwhile, Naomi’s 23-year-old boyfriend Cordae quietly reads Huey Newton’s “Revolutionary Suicide.”

But Osaka doesn’t really feel at home in her new mansion. It’s as if someone else is still sleeping there. Then again, one senses she often doesn’t feel at home in her own skin. We get many an admission: “I felt lost…I was shriveling.”

She conveys an Andre Agassi-like depth of doubt. She asks, “What am I, if I’m not a good tennis player?” She concedes, “I’m blunt, but not on purpose.” Osaka’s a worldwide icon at the top of her game, but a sense of loss seems to shadow her.

On the surface she’s calm and giving. She plays tennis with a young Haitian boy. One fan gushes, “She is kind to everyone. She is a treasure for Japan.”

Still, Naomi wonders, “What’s my lane?” She suffers from her on-court losses, but not nearly as much as when her beloved friend and knowing mentor Kobe Bryant suddenly dies. It’s gut-wrenching.

“There are things I want,” she muses. “But I feel I have this pressure to maintain this squeaky image and not get into any controversy, and as long as I do that everything is chill.”

She confides she’s “a good follower and chaser,” but she is “super scared.” She’s supposed to be “a silent good person and just maintain an image…I was sort of following the blueprints of people. I didn’t really see a path that I liked and I was at a standstill. And then I found out that you have to make your own path.”

Boy did she. Soon she found her voice.

George Floyd died and she flew to Minneapolis to see first-hand the provocative, sometimes transformative power of protests. “I felt like I needed to raise my voice and withdrawing from the [Western and Southern] tournament was something I would have to do.”

Sports had rarely seen a pop-up protest like Naomi’s. Then after winning the 2020 US Open, she was asked on court what her message was. “What was the message you got?” she countered. “The point was to get people talking.”

Netflix’s absorbing docuseries unpacks Naomi’s rich cultural history, her athletic struggles and her psychic sensitivities. It gives us intimate details: her braids amaze, her hands are lovely, her coach is wise. Not surprisingly, we get little or nothing on many topics: her recent imperfect boycott of press conferences and her withdrawal from the French Open and Wimbledon, the $55 million she made in a year, her rapper boyfriend and the Tokyo Olympics, where expectations are soaring, are all ignored.

Still the docuseries lets us know that the whimsical, innocent and fancy-free wannabe we once cherished has all but vanished. Ironically, Osaka’s pressers were once must-see happenings. Filled with insights, spontaneity and joy, they were unlike any others – such unfiltered delights. No one thought aloud like Naomi. She let us in.

Then she shut us out – she stopped doing press conferences. But now her docuseries has let us back in, giving us a mosaic of insights into her still evolving grit, beauty, doubts, multi-faceted, multicultural  stardom and absorbing mystery.

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