TV and Radio

TV review: Naomi Osaka - when winning is not enough

Naomi Osaka reacts after losing a point to Marketa Vondrousova, of the Czech Republic, during the third round of the tennis competition at the Tokyo Olympics. Picture by AP Photo/Seth Wenig.
Billy Foley

Naomi Osaka, Netflix

So, what makes a star athlete?

There’s Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule for a start.

Gladwell theorised that it took 10,000 hours of intensive practice to master the skills of an activity or sport.

More recently, it has been argued that Gladwell’s theory is too simplistic and that the thousands of hours of practice must be mentored and structured by a capable teacher.

Matthew Syed, a former English table tennis international and now a sports columnist with The Times, added a further layer, saying that meritocracy is a myth.

That 10,000 hours of practice is not enough, there is also an element of luck and the benefit of “unusual circumstance”, he argues.

Syed cites his own experience of being introduced to table tennis at a very young age, having an older brother who was obsessed with the sport, meaning he had a practice partner, and meeting a teacher at school who was also obsessed with the game and set up a nearby club which was open 24 hours a day.

His neighbourhood produced more table tennis internationals than the rest of the UK because of these unique factors rather than there being a strange concentration of talent in the streets around the Syed house.

Naomi Osaka practised tennis with her sister, coached by her father, from the age of three. As she got older they would spend up to eight hours a day on the court. Her father “didn’t talk to the other parents” and she was home schooled.

By the age of 22 she had won four major tennis titles, including the US Open twice.

The three episodes of this Netflix documentary were released to coincide with a home Olympics for the Japanese star who moved to the US when she was three.

Of course, Osaka is not just the story of a champion. It’s also the story of mental health in sport after she pulled out of the French championships and Wimbledon this year, later admitting that she had suffered bouts of depression since her breakthrough win at the US Open in 2018.

Clearly an introvert, Osaka struggles with the media and fan attention which comes with being a worldwide star.

When she is playing “she has a robot mind” but off the court appears to struggle.

When she moved into a new house she didn’t sleep for two nights because she was "scared" and just stayed up passing the time on her phone.

She routinely worries about the pressure to win, describing herself as a “vessel” for the work of her coaches and team and feels she lets them down if she loses.

But she’s not entirely afraid of attention.

She was interviewed on The Ellen Show, appears genuinely happy taking to the stage to show her fashion collection and agreed to this Netflix series.

Overall though it’s a sad docuseries. We see plenty of video of Osaka with her family, her boyfriend, in her hotel room but never of celebrating a win.

It seems she doesn’t take great joy from her success but we see her constantly practising and putting in physically demanding sessions, leaving us viewers to assume that she enjoys what she does.

But she is not an athlete who verbalises her desire to be the greatest or to keep on winning, rather she wonders what her life would be like if it didn’t include tennis.

Although she admits she’s “too far down this path to wonder what could have been.”

At the Tokyo Olympics she lit the Olympic flame and then lost in the third round in a shock comprehensive defeat to a competitor 40 places below her in the world rankings.

Osaka did her 10,000 hours but it doesn’t seem to be enough.

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