As we know from very recent history, there’s nothing like a big sporting event to cause a societal stir, getting people all patriotic and riled, willing a victory for both their idols and country. And whilst tennis isn’t quite as rowdy as recent football matches have proved to be, nobody can deny the gravity of Naomi Osaka’s win against Serena Williams at the 2018 US Open.
It’s unsurprising, then, that Netflix jumped on that opportunity and have now produced a documentary miniseries about the sports star, which begins right at that very match. The unease of watching it is hardly reduced the second time around – after a turbulent match in which Williams became angry after the umpire gave her violations she claimed were unfounded, Osaka won in straight sets, but wept at the victory, then apologising to the crowds that Williams hadn’t won the championships. It was a heart-breaking moment which stirred the emotions of viewers everywhere.
So we’re a bit confused why more time wasn’t given to this moment, and the events that lead to it, in this three-part series. However, there’s a lot of footage of the aftermath, and her instant rise to stardom. The series’ director Garett Bradley followed Osaka in the two years that followed, gaining access to home videos from her childhood and chatting with her family and team. Her gentle, quiet nature that is seen in her post match interviews is seen here too, as she discusses her mental anguish at her performances, worrying about whether or not she is a good player. With the context of her withdrawing from the French Open and Wimbledon to protect her mental health, this insight into her mind is quietly heart-breaking.
But it’s also enlightening. Whilst sometimes sad to see, her introspection is fascinating, and she openly discusses her fears on how people perceive her, and the pressure of representing Japan at the Olympic Games. As sports documentaries go, this one stands out as being slower, more meditative and thoughtful. And it’s better looking too, gorgeously shot and edited, with a great score to match. Whilst it isn’t packed to the brim with thrills and big revelations, this is an ace documentary series, with fascinating insight into the world of a rising sports star.
Rebecca Nicholson of The Guardian calls the film “affecting,” and says, “the series ends, almost abruptly. Initially, I wanted more, particularly given the voice that Osaka has found to talk about the pressure of public life, but now I think the point is that there is still a lot more to come from her, on and off the court.” The Telegraph’s Ed Power calls it an “absorbing and unflinching character study,” saying “Osaka remains an enigma all the way through the series. She is a global sports icon with the soul of an introvert. A millionaire athlete whose lifestyle, as depicted on screen, is remarkably frugal. And the star of a Netflix documentary who doesn’t want to speak to the press. It’s an engrossing blend of contradictions.” And Vulture’s Jen Chaney says the decision not to include much on the Williams match was a “deliberate choice, one that avoids painting Osaka as a victim and establishes her instead as an individual.”
First shown July 2021. You can watch the trailer by pressing play on the show image, or by clicking here.Naomi Osaka