We’re all familiar with newspaper stories about torn hamstrings, stress fractures, busted knees and shoulders. The Age can devote an entire page to a champion footballer’s groin strain. But until recently nobody ever mentioned an athlete’s mental health unless it was to lament some lapse in concentration at a vital stage. “A brain explosion!” is the familiar technical term.
Suddenly a wave of mental instability seems to be sweeping through professional sport. Athletes are complaining about the pressures of performance and expectation, about the commitments forced on them by sponsors, about racist abuse and sexual harrassment. We’ve gone beyond the old clichés about things being lonely at the top, or fame being a gilded cage. The new complaints are critically bound up with the identity politics that are redefining – and dividing – western society.
One of the focal points for this tendency has been tennis star, Naomi Osaka. Until last week, when US gymnast, Simone Biles stole the headlines by pulling out of Olympic competition, citing “mental health” issues, Osaka was the most prominent example of a leading athlete putting her own emotional well-being ahead of her performance in the arena.
When she was fined for refusing to take part in a press conference during the French Open, and subsequently pulled out of Wimbeldon, it seemed shocking that a champion would forgo the chance to compete on the highest stage because she felt “mentally” out-of-sorts.
It’s generally accepted that top sportsmen and women make great sacrifices in order to reap great rewards. Osaka was choosing the private self over the public image, saying no reward was worth the damage to her psyche. It remains to be seen whether this heralds a rethinking of the structures of professional sport or a career blunder of catastrophic proportions.
Is Osaka a new age sporting hero or a self-indulgent teen hangover who wants to have her cake and eat it? Are her actions a sign of maturity or immaturity? Is she using her “platform” for the good of all, or whipping it out from under her own feet?
Director, Garrett Bradley, hesitantly explores these conundrums in Naomi Osaka, a three-part series for Netflix. The prospect was intriguing but by the end of this “understated, intimate” portrait (adjectives by Netflix), one comes away with the feeling that Naomi Osaka must be one of the dullest people ever to be the subject of a documentary. Instead of three separate episodes this should have been a stand-alone feature.
Bradley takes things at a leisurely pace in his impressionistic overview of Osaka’s brief but stellar career. It begins with home movie footage of Naomi and her sister, Mari, playing tennis as little girls. Osaka says she was on court from the age of three and that she and her sister would play for eight hours a day. She must have clocked up her 10,000 hours well before puberty.
We see her breakthrough moment, winning the US Open in 2018, beating Serena Williams in straight sets. Osaka was only 20 at the time. Now she is 23, with four grand slam titles. In 2018 she was the highest-earning female athlete in the world. She was the first Asian player to win a grand slam, and the first to be ranked number one. Osaka’s achievements are incredible, but her personality is a work-in-progress.
When your mother is from Hokkaido and your father from Haiti, and you represent Japan while having lived in the United States since the age of three, a certain amount of confusion is inevitable. In addition, Osaka was home-schooled while she followed her father’s dream of becoming a tennis star. It’s a recipe for insecurity, as a semi-socialised Naomi continually frets about who she is. The question returns again and again, in different guises, leading to a succession of banal introspections:
“What am I if I’m not a good tennis player?” she asks. And later: “What would happen if the world stopped? What would happen if tennis stopped?”
By the third episode it’s gotten worse: “I’m thinking maybe I’m doing something wrong by, like, not representing the half-black, half-Japanese kids well.”
It’s not until the final episode that we learn Osaka doesn’t speak Japanese very well, even though this is her official nationality. She’s not exactly fluent in English either, appearing to be shy or sullen most of the time. She dwells incessantly on “mental” issues. Episode 1: “I really need to, like, mentally take a break and, like, chill out.” Episode 2: “ I felt like I really need to, like, mentally take a break, and just, like, chill out.”
One gets the impression of a young woman who has led a cloistered life. The personality crises most people go through in their teens have been postponed until her early twenties, by which time she has become an international role model. She says she would have liked to go to university but instead got caught up playing tennis.
Living in a big new house, flirting with the fashion industry, flush with money from tennis and endorsements, Osaka feels as if she’s missing out on something. She hates losing, and goes into long, silent sulks whenever that happens, but also feels the need to keep proving she’s a good person.
When Osaka eliminates 15-year-old Wunderkind, Coco Gauff, in the third round of the 2019 US Open, she makes a big deal of asking her teary opponent to join her in the post-match interview. It’s meant to be an act of kindness but it feels weirdly patronising. (“She’s accomplished so much and she’s still so young… I want her to take care of herself.”) But when Gauff turns the tables, beating Osaka in the third round of the 2020 Australian Open, there’s no more big sister routine.
“I love her but I don’t like this feeing of losing to her,” she says. “Yeah, I just… I feel bad.” One can only imagine how she felt after being eliminated from the Tokyo Olympics in round 3, after being given the supreme honour of lighting the cauldron.
Ultimately it’s politics that provides Osaka with that warm inner glow. Following the death of George Floyd she flies to Minnesota to take part in a Black Lives Matter protest. She drops out of a tournament semi-final in order to make a statement. In the 2020 US Open she wears a series of masks emblazoned with the names of black people killed by the police, winning new fans for her activism.
The film never introduces us to Osaka’s boyfriend, the rapper, Cordae, who is always hanging around in the background. With his dandified ringlets and ‘Defund the Police’ T-shirt he seems silly and ineffectual, but presumably Naomi’s political awakening must owe something to this relationship.
It’s but one of many avenues left unexplored. A more adventurous filmmaker might have asked Osaka a few searching questions rather than letting her tell us how the off-season was valuable because: “It just made me, like, think about the importance of everything.”
For an athlete accustomed to making split-second decisions on court Osaka has an amazing propensity to over-think every scenario. She wants to do good and be viewed as a good person, but struggles to reconcile this with the ruthless will-to-win required of a champion. Her embrace of politics is also a way of feeling positive about herself, a reassurance that she is more than just a tennis player. She might do well to look at Roger Federer, who has proven one can be both a fierce competitor and an advocate for many good causes, while remaining free from maudlin self-reflection.
Directed by Garrett Bradley
Starring Naomi Osaka, Wim Fissette, Leonard François, Tamaki Osaka, Mari Osaka, Cordae
USA, rated M, 3 episodes of approx. 30 mins each
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 7 August, 2021