'Naomi Osaka' Explores How the Tennis Star Found Her Voice as an Activist

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In the first episode of the Netflix docuseries Naomi Osaka, the titular tennis star has hit a rough patch. She enters the 2019 U.S. Open and 2020 Australian Open as the defending champion in each tournament, having made a major name for herself on the world stage and achieved a long-held career goal of being the first Japanese tennis player to win a Grand Slam title.

But repeat wins aren't in the cards for Osaka at either Open, and viewers watch and listen as the announcers express their dismay at her early eliminations. 

"For me, I'm a chaser or a follower, so it's really hard to be the top person," Osaka shares in voiceover, expressing how it feels to be put on a pedestal as a defending Grand Slam winner. "I don't know, I feel like I'm struggling with the two extremes."

It's a theme that comes in sharper focus for the young sports star as the series shows how, over the next year, she worked hard, not just at tennis, but at finding her voice as an athlete and international celebrity, and forging her own path in support of an important cause.

The third and final episode of the miniseries opens on a conflict Osaka has been facing all her life. She addresses the backlash she received after formally declaring her intention to play for Japan, and not the United States, in the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. The 23-year-old athlete was born in Japan to a Haitian father, Leonard François, and a Japanese mother, Tamaki Osaka, and though they relocated to the United States when she was just three years old, Osaka has always competed internationally for Japan.

"I've been playing under the Japan flag since I was 14," she tells the camera. "It was never even a secret that I'm gonna play for Japan in the Olympics. So I don't choose America, and suddenly people are like, 'Your Black card is revoked.' And it's like, African American isn't the only Black, you know?...I feel like people really don't know the difference between nationality and race."

As news coverage of the George Floyd murder and ensuing protests plays out over scenes of Osaka getting her hair braided and training for the upcoming 2020 U.S. Open, it's clear that something has started to shift for the tennis star.

"I feel like I always have this pressure to maintain this squeaky image, and not get into any controversy. And as long as I do that, then everything's chill," she admits. "It's a bit weird, 'cause there's this buildup of things I wanna say, but I'm super scared. I'm supposed to be like, a silent, good person or whatever, and just maintain the image."

When she and her boyfriend, rapper Cordae, travel to Minneapolis to march alongside the protesters, Osaka has a moment of revelation that seems to have shaped her next public steps.  "I never had the chance to like, go to a place where a protest was happening," she says. "It's different, being aware and being present."

The episode tracks how the George Floyd protests spread throughout the sporting world -- from the WNBA, to the NBA, to MLS and beyond -- and Osaka makes a decision about how she will add her voice to the conversation, first pulling out of her semifinal match at the Western & Southern Open. 

"It was a bit frightening to speak up. I do feel like it's been building for a while, and this is what I'm supposed to be doing in this moment," she tells the cameras in a candid moment. "I've been always following people, and sort of following blueprints of people, and now I feel like I didn't really see a lane, or a path that I liked, and I was at a standstill. And I found that you have to make your own path." 

"We were watching the NBA teams do it, and the WNBA teams do it. And these were people that were able to talk as a collective, make a decision, have the support of their teammates," Osaka's coach, Wim Fissette, recalls. "[Naomi] was on an island and did it alone. No other tennis player was willing to do it. She was the one who took it upon herself and stood up. She stopped the game of tennis for a day, which had never been done in history."

Next comes the 2020 U.S. Open, where Osaka makes headlines by donning a face mask sporting the name of a different victim of police violence ahead of every match.

She tells reporters, cautiously, that she has seven, one for each round on her way to a hopeful Grand Slam victory -- but is quick to express her dismay that seven masks isn't close to enough to pay tribute to each victim of police violence. It could be seen as an eyebrow-raising demonstration, especially in a sport as staid and traditional as tennis tends to be, but Osaka had the full support of her family and team.

"When it comes to the masks," her father, Leonard, says in an emotional moment, "it feels like she's standing up for me."

"I asked her who came up with the idea, and she said, 'I did,'" mother Tamika notes. "I said, 'Brilliant.'"

"She made that decision on her own," Leonard adds.  "And it's the right decision. She's standing on the right side of history."

In post-match press conferences, Osaka speaks with renewed purpose, sharing with reporters how she feels that she's taken her platform for granted in the past, and how she made the decision to do something meaningful with the attention she's previously shied away from.

"The point is to make people start talking," she notes.

Another milestone occurs during the competition: the birthday of late NBA legend Kobe Bryant, with whom Osaka shared a friendship and meaningful conversations about their careers and competitive drive. Where once she was worried about letting Bryant down, and failing to emulate his "Mamba mentality," Osaka shares in an interview on her way to her second U.S. Open title that she hopes the basketball star would appreciate her one-woman protest.

"I just always wish that I would do something that he's proud of," she says. "I felt incredibly lucky to have known Kobe, and to speak to him on a personal level. So hopefully whatever I do… he'd be proud."

This year, after also regaining her title at the 2021 Australian Open, Osaka withdrew from Wimbledon and the French Open, citing the need to focus on her mental health and well-being, but she is currently gearing up for her Olympics debut at the 2021 Tokyo Games. Finding her moments, on and off the tennis court, are what she's been training for her whole life.

The final moments of the series follow Naomi and her family as they travel back to her father's home country of Haiti and visit the historic Citadelle Laferrière, which was built by tens of thousands of former slaves, and holds significance as the only African-derived military fortification remaining in the New World.

"Whenever I'm in hard situations, [my dad] has always told me that my ancestors were on those ships for like, 40 days," Osaka recalls. "I use that as strength."


Naomi Osaka is streaming now on Netflix.

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