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A Look At The New Naomi Osaka Netflix Docuseries


Tennis star Naomi Osaka is just 23 years old, but she has already changed the game, not just by what she's done - winning four Grand Slams while making ever stronger statements about social justice - but also for what she has refused to do - withdrawing from the French Open and Wimbledon and declining to speak to the media in order, she said, to protect her mental health. Now a new Netflix docuseries about her life shares more of her story, the highs and lows in the life of a very young woman still learning to cope with the weight of international celebrity.


NAOMI OSAKA: I feel like I always had this pressure to maintain, like, this squeaky image and not go into any controversy. And as long as I do that, then everything's chill.

MARTIN: Directed by Oscar nominee Garrett Bradley, the series follows Osaka over the course of two years, mapping out the development of her game and her views about the role she can play in the world.

We wanted to talk more about this new series and also about how Naomi Osaka is influencing discussions around mental health and sports, so we called Kavitha Davidson. She writes about sports and culture for the digital sports publication The Atlantic, and she is with us now. Kavitha Davidson, welcome. Thanks so much for talking to us.

KAVITHA DAVIDSON: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: First, I just wanted to ask what you think of the series. Did you learn anything new about Osaka here?

DAVIDSON: I did. You know, what was really fascinating about the series is you see this intimate portrait of this person that - we always say we think we know athletes, but we know we don't actually know athletes. And ironically, who Naomi Osaka is in press conferences seems to be exactly who she actually is, which is so interesting given all the conversations we're having about her reticence to do media.

MARTIN: What do you think was her goal in participating in this project, given, as you said, she seems, A, reticent, B, modest - I mean, surprisingly modest for somebody at her level, right? And so what do you think was her goal?

DAVIDSON: I think that's the most interesting question. I wish I could ask her. I tried to get her to do an interview with me. Obviously, she's not doing media. It's clear that, I mean, just from the footage that this was a long time in the making. This documentary tracks her starting from, you know, the 2018 U.S. Open final, her first Grand Slam win. I wonder what her goal actually was because for someone as private and as shy as she is, she allowed these cameras pretty far into her life. And she was extremely candid about her evolution and her journey. And again, this documentary starts before some of the more recent things that we've seen her be public about. I wonder if it was a way for her to document exactly what she was going through without knowing where that would lead. And it's obviously led to this kind of unprecedented, incredible place.

MARTIN: Well, she - you know, she is sort of taking control of her story in other ways. I'm thinking about this piece that she wrote for Time last week where she spoke more about what drove her to withdraw from the Open and from Wimbledon. And I think she makes some points that resonate. I mean, she says, for example, in any other line of work, you would be forgiven for taking a personal day here and there, so long as it's not habitual. You know, what about that?

DAVIDSON: I mean, that's absolutely true. And this is part of a broader trend that we've seen among athletes taking control of their own personal narratives. You know, she does this piece with Time. She's doing this documentary. There's the website, The Players' Tribune, which is literally a website for players to, with ghost editors, write their own stories. And I think it really has upended the way that sports media and sports journalism has approached these athletes who for very long have been kind of filtered through a lens of what athletes owe us as the public and as media.

And we've seen athletes kind of reject that notion, the notion that they are obligated to be a certain type of personality or to embody a certain front-facing persona. And she says this in the documentary. She says, I'm expected to be quiet and the good girl and uphold and maintain this image, and it's hard. And I think that part of the reason she does this documentary and she's only doing media that she's comfortable with and she has control over is to combat the ways that she's seen her predecessors be treated, those predecessors obviously being Serena and Venus Williams among them.

MARTIN: Well, OK, so I have two questions about this. You suggest in a piece that you wrote for The Athletic that there is a reluctance to hear what these athletes have to say. As much as we may claim to revere them and their athletic ability, you say we actually don't really want to hear what they have to say. And you wrote a piece for The Athletic. It's titled, "Everything Naomi Osaka Is Saying Is Important, So Why Are So Many People Unwilling To Listen?" So I have two questions about that. First - the first question is, like what? What are some of the things she's saying that you think people need to hear that they don't necessarily want to hear?

DAVIDSON: Well, first, she's saying something that's a continuation of things that we've heard from athletes, particularly in the last year, but dating back several years, which is we're humans. We're human beings. We're not just athletes. You know, our sport isn't all of who we are. And as being human beings, we're not going to shut up and play or shut up and dribble. We're going to use our platforms. We're going to talk about things that matter to us, that impact us, that impact our communities.

And so much of what I do, so much of what I talk about when I write or talk about athletes is realizing that they are human beings and realizing that there is a person. There are a multitude of personalities there and that no one individual or athlete can fit into a mold of what we think the perfect athlete should be. And Naomi Osaka's definitely a continuation of that.

MARTIN: Forgive me for asking this question because I'm asking you to project. If you and I were to talk a year from now, two years from now, do you think the conversations we will be having about some of the issues that she's surfaced, will those be different because of the stance that she's taken? Forgive me for asking you to project because as a journalist, you know, your job is to tell us what is. But I'm just interested in what are - your thoughts are about that.

DAVIDSON: I think they're already different. So I can't imagine them stopping to evolve or stopping to change, you know what I mean? I think that when we consider where the conversation about mental health in particular and athletes was a year ago - and this was before Naomi Osaka. They'd started to change really in the pandemic and really after the murder of George Floyd. Very famously, Paul George in the NBA bubble last year talked about not being mentally all there because of everything that was going on and this idea that sports is not the most important thing. So I do think that this conversation will evolve. I hope that it gets better. We've already seen leagues start to institute mental health services and start to partner with mental health organizations to bring awareness. And I only expect that to continue.

MARTIN: That's Kavitha Davidson. She is a sports and culture writer with The Athletic. Kavitha, thanks so much for talking with us.

DAVIDSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.