We love creating myths around winners, to take them far away from reality and humanity, but Garrett Bradley’s Netflix series Naomi Osaka does just the opposite. At 23, the rising Haitian-Japanese-American tennis star has already won four grand slam titles, but she’s also struggled to keep up with the incessant demand to keep winning. She repeatedly refers to herself as “a vessel” throughout the three episodes — a receptacle of other people’s love and aspirations, a deep source of unbridled excellence, but also something expected to remain inert while others fill or empty it. “For so long, I’ve tied winning to my worth as a person,” she confesses at one point. The documentary has come out right before the Summer Olympics, where Osaka will be representing Japan, and weeks after she controversially withdrew from the French Open in a bid to prioritize her mental health.
Osaka doesn’t speak as much as the usual documentary protagonist. We especially tend to expect verbosity from athletes, whose lives and public images are so heavily manufactured and manicured. Instead she’s soft-spoken and vulnerable, making her quiet absorption of each defeat heartbreaking. Bradley is one of the few documentary filmmakers who can convey both this vulnerability and Osaka’s immense courage and willpower. (She does the same beautifully with Sybil Richardson in Time.) She uses Osaka’s story as a medium through which the complex lines of race, nationhood, and gender intersect. Bradley does not turn her into a mythic figure, but she’s no less of a phenomenon.
Naomi Osaka is available to stream on Netflix.