Netflix’s ‘Naomi Osaka’ Explores the Mental Toll of Being a Champion

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Osaka was alone on the court—with more than 20,000 spectators watching—when she beat her childhood idol, Serena Williams, in that controversial U.S. Open final in 2018. The victory was Osaka’s breakthrough moment but also the match that triggered her depression. “Before I won the U.S. Open, I was flying under the radar, so people wouldn’t really care if I won or lost,” she says. Suddenly, she was one of the biggest names in the game, with all the added pressure of boundary breaking: Osaka, the daughter of a Japanese mother and a Haitian father, became the first Asian tennis player to be ranked number one worldwide. “The amount of attention I get is kind of ridiculous,” Osaka says. “No one prepares you for that.” Nor for how alienating it can be. “Sometimes I feel lonely,” she admits—such a humble, human sentiment for a young phenom. She struggles to sleep in her sleek, modern new home in Beverly Hills, shaken by every bump in the night.

By the 2019 U.S. Open, Osaka was no longer an underdog but a title defender, with Colin Kaepernick and mentor Kobe Bryant cheering from her box. “A player has to prove themselves again and again and again,” says Osaka’s father, Leonard Francois, who urged her into tennis at age three. The cameras roll as Osaka circles the globe on the Grand Slam circuit, but she is unable to replicate her initial burst of success. The series shows how, long before this year, the rigors of pro tennis began taking a toll on her mental health. “I feel like I need to mentally take a break and chill out,” Osaka remarks after losing the 2019 U.S. Open title to Belinda Bencic. “For so long I’ve tied winning to my worth as a person,” she reflects. “What am I if I’m not a good tennis player?”

Osaka continues to struggle with a lack of sleep. “When I get into tournaments, like really big tournaments, my sleep is all messed up and I start having dreams that I win the tournament or then I don’t have dreams at all and I just sweat,” she says. After falling short at the 2019 Australian Open, Osaka films herself walking alone through the dark streets of Melbourne. “It’s either walk or don’t sleep and lose my mind,” she explains, conceding, “It’s a bit scary.”

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