Tennis superstar, activist, sister, designer, badass: Haitain-Japanese American Naomi Osaka has expanded what it means to be a tennis pro. Osaka serves intentionally into her public and private lives which is what makes her a wonderful activist. Every choice 23-year-old Osaka makes seems to revolutionize tennis. Her eponymous three part Netflix docuseries gave more insight into her calm demeanor and life beyond tennis. 30 minutes a piece, the series is broken into a triforce: (1) Rise, (2) Champion Mentality and (3) New Blue Print.
Often wrangling anxiety and Imposter Syndrome, Osaka is genuine and compassionate with unyielding determination in her eyes. Top-paid women’s athlete Osaka has enraptured the world with every choice she makes. Like with her openness about her mental health struggle. Or the time she withdrew from the semi-finals to protest “continued genocide of Black people.”
In the three episodes, we see Osaka in her prescription aviator glasses chilling off court contemplating life just as much as we see her dawned in Nike tennis gear, hitting incredible backhands and forehands. We see snippets of cute moments with her boyfriend, rapper Cordae. It isn’t about the scorecard: viewers take in the multifaceted nature of Osaka. We get more than just the highlights of her life. We see the daily—physical and emotional— tolls being a professional tennis player has on a transnational socially aware biracial woman. This is a type of tennis player that has yet to be championed—this is not a Nadal, Djokovic or Federer kind of greatness. It’s more.
For non-tennis players, this docuseries will also be educational: Osaka elucidates on just how much fortitude it takes to play tennis. It also shows how the often sidelined American tennis world can be a powerful site for activism.
Taking the Wins & Losses with Love
The first episode opens with Osaka defeating one of her favorite players: Serena Williams. On September 8th, 2018 Osaka won her first Grand Slam at the US Open at the young age of 20 years old; she won 6-2, 6-4. This episode also shows us the beginning of Osaka’s origins: there is old camera footage of her first tennis strokes, which were coaxed out of her as a three-year-old alongside her sister Mari.
Fast forwarding to the third episode, we see Osaka at Wimbledon intentionally choosing to wear a different mask every day with the name of a murdered Black American. Her choice reverberated across media outlets: who was this Gen-Z tennis star walking to the beat of her own racquet? Osaka sported 7 customized black face masks: Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile and Tamir Rice.
Fortunately her plan to wear all of them worked out: she advanced every round which allowed her to showcase each of them. Unlike white tennis champion predecessors, Osaka has braided her lived experience into her tennis career. She embodied the adage, as Carol Hinisch said, the personal is the political onto the court.
Viewers also learn the effects COVID-19 had on Osaka’s career and the ripple effect this had on the tennis world. Like many, it halted Osaka’s career. “I’d never had a break like this before in my life,” Osaka shares, “so I just tried to clear my mind.” She watched tons of anime. In the morning she worked out. She got restless and asked her agent for projects. And she tuned into the news cycle in a way that the multi-hyphenated talented professional tennis touring human usually could not. In May 2020, George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis. Osaka took action. Inspiringly so, she has become tennis’ #1 player against racism.
But don’t be mistaken. Osaka has known what’s up. She was 14 and living in Boca Raton, Florida, when Trayvon Martin was fatally shot some three hours north. “I watched the Trayvon stuff go down. For me that was super-scary. I travel so much during the year that I don’t always know the news that’s centered in the U.S. But then when the pandemic hit, there were no distractions,” Osaka remarks. “I was forced to look.” (It seems she means to look both instropectivly and literally.)
Like all athletes, Osaka hates losing. What the docuseries shows well (i.e. what makes it harder to lose in tennis) is that unlike team sports, tennis is often just you. Osaka attests to this as a singles player. To cultivate and sustain a mental game during the actual game of physical tennis is a feat like no other. On the one hand, when you win a match as a singles player it can be gratifying to know it was all you. On the other hand, the loss hits harder knowing you’re the only one who can be held accountable.
Naomi: “Coco I think You’re Amazing”
After one of her defeats, we walk with her after she loses a match. She vlogs to us sharing that she can’t sleep and just has to walk or she’ll worry ceaselessly in bed. This made the Cori Gauff moment earlier stick out to me even more.
When Osaka asked Gauff to be interviewed with her, I was moved to tears. (For those who don’t know the tennis prowess of Gauff, in 2020 she defeated Venus Williams.) Osaka and Gauff had a tender moment that is inspiring for athletes of all sports. After she defeated Gauff, Osaka asked her to stay in the court so they could be interviewed. At first, Gauff just wanted to “cry in the shower.” But Osaka insisted that Gauff would feel better to let one’s emotions out in front of a crowd than alone. “I think it’s better than going into the shower and crying,” Osaka tells her. “Let people know how you feel.”
Later Gauff remarked that Osaka is “a true athlete” for playing tough on the court, but treating Gauff “like a best friend after the match.” They eventually played each other again and Gauff defeated Osaka—still no bad blood.
Kobe Bryant’s Death on Osaka
A huge part of Osaka’s life I had no idea about prior to the docuseries was her relationship with famous basketball player Kobe Bryant. Her grief over his passing emphasized how while tennis flies under the radar in America, Cross-sport camaraderie in America is strong and exists especially among athletes of color.
Upon learning of his death in January 2020, she expressed how she feels like a disappointment: “I’m supposed to carry on his mentality in tennis, and here I am, I haven’t won a Grand Slam, I’m losing matches because I’m mentally weak, and that’s so uncharacteristic of him,” she said. “It’s like we’re having all these talks and I’m not even doing what we’re talking about.”
Osaka had to play the Spain Open right after his passing and it was clear, as her coach’s voiceover explained, she was not mentally present. Athletes’ scores and stats are shared far more than their mourning.
Osaka’s Confident Candor
As I watched these episodes, I felt like I constantly learned aspects about Osaka. This is thanks to her candor on mental tenacity to play tennis. Osaka speaks with candor during all the episodes on the sacrifices she’s made to excel at tennis. She also opens up about the poverty her parents endured; wanting to bring financial stability to her parents motivated her decision to go pro.
Equally as inspiring is seeing Osaka’s mental tenacity carry on off the court. Aforementioned, her ability to cope through Bryant’s death; the day he passes, she vlogs and shows the camera that a photo of them are her phone’s lock screen image.
Outside of tennis, Osaka has been able to channel her creativity into challenging herself to try things like designing fashion, photoshoots with Vogue and a collab with Barbie. Not shown in the episodes were her recent milestone: lighting the 2021 Olympic Torch on her home turf representing Japan.
Game, Set, Match: Osaka
Researching Osaka for this piece, I learned that the Williams sisters boycotted Indian Wells in 2001. Despite asks to stay, the sisters left due to being called racial slurs by the crowd. They would not let their game be thrown off by bigots. They did what they wanted as lone women of color in a predominantly white tennis world. If social media was like it is now, I’m sure this would have gone viral.
With the pressures of modern social media, Osaka still stays true to herself. She listens to her gut even if it means prioritizing her mental health over a match. Even if it means standing up for herself when haters tell her “your Black card is revoked” for playing for Japan. Even if it means speaking up against Anti-Asian Hate when you feel like it should be common sense.
When I discussed the docuseries with a friend who played college tennis, he told me he cried watching the series. He, an Indian American, said it was cathartic to see someone like Osaka be celebrated. We agree that there really has never been a tennis star like Osaka. We envy young tennis players who got to watch her play when we mainly cheered on white males, Sharpiova and the lone BIPOC champs, the Williams sisters. While China’s Na Li looked like me, we were still culturally too different for me to fully feel seen.
Osaka is invigorating: she redefines what it means to be a tennis champion by reminding us it’s not just what happens on the court that matters.
At one point in the series, Osaka is asked how it feels to have people come to watch her play and burst into tears of joy. She feels “overwhelmed” and humbled, remembering how she felt watching her favorites play. She is a welcome change in the tennis scene and is now that favorite player to so many—including an ex-competitive tennis player like me.