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A question of identity

Naomi Osaka profiles the Olympic athlete’s success and struggles


A question of identity
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Naomi Osaka became the first Asian tennis player ranked No. 1 worldwide, has won four Grand Slams, and just became the first tennis player to light the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremony.

The 23-year-old tennis sensation lost in the third round of singles competition in the Tokyo Olympics after unexpectedly withdrawing from the French Open, citing anxiety and depression exacerbated by negative media questioning. But she still commands the tennis world’s attention.

Naomi Osaka, a three-part Netflix docuseries (less than two hours in all and rated TV-14) shows Osaka’s world of discipline, single-mindedness, and competition—and the mental health toll fame can take. It’s a familiar theme in other recent documentaries of prominent athletes and child actors.

“The amount of attention I get is ridiculous,” Osaka says. “No one prepares you for that.”

Osaka’s reflections as she processes wins, losses, and why she competes reveal inner turmoil: “So much pressure … I felt I was very lost because I was so focused on winning.” Osaka appears assured and happy when she wins but questions everything when she loses.

The miniseries’ downsides include slow pacing and lack of continuity. And it leaves viewers with unanswered questions, such as why Osaka renounced her American citizenship to play in the Olympics for Japan, which she has always represented because of dual Japanese and American citizenship. (Osaka has a Japanese mother and Haitian father.) The issue illustrates Osaka’s continual wrestling with identity: “So what am I if I’m not a good tennis player?”

While exploring that answer, she joined protests after George Floyd’s death in 2020 and boycotted a tournament in support of black solidarity, saying she wanted to start a conversation in a majority-white sport.

The series’ best footage is of Osaka playing tennis. We see the incomparable results she achieved practicing eight hours a day as a little girl on public courts, then working with the best coaches and trainers as she advanced. Her powerful strokes, quiet intensity, and 5-foot-11-inch frame intimidate opponents. Yet, after beating 15-year-old tennis phenom Coco Gauff at the U.S. Open in 2019, she comforted the sobbing teen, encouraging Gauff to join her at a press conference.

Osaka’s transparency makes clear that early success and wealth create hazards difficult to navigate. But while visiting her Haitian grandmother, Osaka offhandedly mentions what could make all the difference: “Every time I go to Grandma’s house, she shows me her picture of Jesus on the cross and says, ‘I’m praying for you.’”

Sharon Dierberger

Sharon is a correspondent and reviewer for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University graduate. She has served as a university teacher, clinical exercise physiologist, homeschooling mom, businesswoman, and Division 1 athlete. She resides in Stillwater, Minn., with her husband, Bill.


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