Naomi Osaka frequently refers to herself as a vessel throughout her eponymous Netflix docuseries, which debuted on the streaming service Friday. It’s the thesis of her opening narration, suggesting she began playing tennis too early in life for it to be something she chose completely for herself. It’s how she describes her relationship to older sister Mari, a former fellow player turned artist who happily takes the former No. 1 for her fashion muse.

The descriptor comes up a final time in footage of her post-match press conference at the 2020 Australian Open, a way to compound her disappointment at failing to defend her title by thinking of the hard work then-new coach Wim Fissette—along with the rest of her team—put into her.

“We came here to win the tournament,” she says quietly, “And I wasn't able to do, like, what I was supposed to do.”

Naomi Osaka, too, is a vessel. Spanning three episodes and directed by Garrett Bradley, the docuseries is beautifully shot and stylistically executed, featuring numerous clips of a young Osaka honing her game on public courts. Conceived in an era where the soft-focus documentary has become a pop culture rite of passage, the series itself is, too often, at the mercy of what an otherwise demonstrably complex Osaka is willing to share—the sum of which is, unfortunately, not much more than many already know.


Osaka last took the court for the first round of Roland Garros, later withdrawing in an effort to protect her mental health.


The tone is set early by a montage of her 2018 US Open triumph, one that scrubs the more uncomfortable moments involving vanquished opponent Serena Williams' arguments with umpire Carlos Ramos and tournament officials. It is a retelling of the moment she deserved to have but didn’t quite get, likely the way she imagined it when, as a child, she outlined lofty goals that included becoming the first Japanese woman to win a Grand Slam singles title.

That career-defining dissonance is never addressed, not even as the camera holds steady on Williams when the 23-time Grand Slam champion cameos at a 2020 Australian Open exhibition—an unused opportunity to examine her role as Osaka’s childhood idol.

An opposite dynamic is explored—albeit peripherally—when the docuseries touches down on the 2019 US Open and a defending champ Osaka defeats a 15-year-old Gauff in a primetime third-round clash. Osaka encourages the young American to join her for a now-viral on-court interview and what could have been a mirror image of that catastrophic trophy ceremony from the year prior—but only for those independently able to draw that parallel.

Where a seasoned documentary viewer might expect new or deeper insight, there is none to mine beyond pressers given at the time—both there and again when Gauff goes on to avenge the loss in Melbourne.


Osaka is instead at her most vulnerable shortly thereafter the latter, in the wake of Kobe Bryant’s death; the two bonded as Nike athletes and the basketball legend became something of a mentor, watching her play on Arthur Ashe Stadium the summer before his untimely passing.

Out for a late-night walk after that news broke, Osaka confesses to a perfectionism-laced shyness that kept her from reaching out to Bryant for advice after losing to Gauff, and painfully laments how they can never speak again.

“I’m supposed to carry on his mentality in tennis,” she says, holding back tears, “and I’m losing matches because I’m mentally weak and that’s so uncharacteristic of him.”

It is in these quieter, ostensibly organic moments where Naomi Osaka, like the athlete herself, shines brightest, like when she replaces her Australian Open trophy with a portrait painted by sister Mari or when she spends her 22nd birthday asking mother Tamaki, for whom she claims to have played and hoped to give a better life, if she should be satisfied with the two major titles she’s achieved to this point.

“I know there's not supposed to be a timeline, but...I wonder if I’m late,” she wonders aloud at the Teppanyaki-style restaurant.


From that evening, Osaka would blitz two of the three hard-court majors that followed and double her Grand Slam count, but that self-doubt is never entirely out of sight.

“For so long, I’ve tied winning to my worth as a person,” she says in a line also used as the clincher for what was an admittedly tantalizing trailer. “What am I, if not a good tennis player?”

Ironically, at a time when those feelings have been at their most crippling—manifesting in a mental health distress that forced her out of both Roland Garros and WimbledonNaomi Osaka is here to recall memories of a more resolute Naomi Osaka who played with purpose to win the 2020 US Open, all while remaining steadfast in her fight for racial justice.

“What was the message you got [from the Black Lives Matter-inspired masks]?” she asks after overcoming Victoria Azarenka in three dramatic sets, a culmination of an inspiring crusade that the docuseries supplements only with cursory musings on race and Osaka's endlessly fraught position as the daughter of Japanese and Haitian immigrants.

Naomi Osaka has made a career out of speaking through silence, a talent that Naomi Osaka, with little new to offer, struggles to replicate.