As Naomi Osaka shares her struggle with pressure and self-worth, we should all sit up and listen

·4-min read
Photo credit: Cosmopolitan UK/ Getty Images
Photo credit: Cosmopolitan UK/ Getty Images

In the past week or so, like most Wimbledon fans, I went from never having heard of 18-year-old Emma Raducanu to intently watching her every match. Off the court, details of her life and sudden catapult to fame were pored over on TV, social media feeds and in newspapers, before her sad retirement on Monday evening due to breathing difficulties.

The next day, Emma told the BBC she was feeling "a lot better", explaining that she thought her medical issues were emphasised by long, intense rallies but were also down to "everything that has gone on behind the scenes, the accumulation of the excitement and the buzz". While Emma's language in the interview clearly framed her Wimbledon experience as positive and something to learn from, it goes to show how intense her whirlwind rise has been.

This context of seeing a teenager who's waiting to open her A-Level results being placed on an almost impossibly high pedestal and scrutinised by the world makes new comments from another young tennis ace, Naomi Osaka, even more poignant.

Netflix has just dropped the trailer for its upcoming documentary series on the 23-year-old Japanese tennis pro, titled Naomi Osaka, and from the quote snippets released, it's clear the life of a young sports star has its challenges.

"No one really knows all the sacrifices you make, just to be good," Osaka starts the trailer by saying, before it goes into more detail on the immense pressure of being an "overnight superstar" and how it "weighs heavily on her".

The soundbites reference that "everyone has an opinion on her" from sponsors to family and social media users (of which 2.5 million are following Osaka on Instagram alone).

Photo credit: Mike Hewitt - Getty Images
Photo credit: Mike Hewitt - Getty Images

"I think the amount of attention that I get is kind of ridiculous. No one prepares you for that. I don't know... I feel like I'm struggling," Naomi says.

After climbing the world rankings and becoming a hugely in-demand and marketable sports star, Osaka has previously been candid about the toll her career takes on her mental health.

This May, she withdrew from the French Open, after officials fined her $15,000 and threatened to suspend her from the tournament for opting out of mandatory press commitments. Osaka explained she was experiencing “huge waves of anxiety” before each speaking engagement, and that she’d also struggled with depression following her 2018 US Open win against Serena Williams. The up-and-comer was booed and jeered by the crowd during the trophy ceremony for defeating her much-loved competitor.

Photo credit: Tim Clayton - Corbis - Getty Images
Photo credit: Tim Clayton - Corbis - Getty Images

It seems that, sadly for her young age, Osaka has already experienced enough scrutiny in the court of public opinion to reach a place of blocking out the noise.

"I always had this pressure to maintain this sweetly image, but now I don't care what anyone has to say," she says in the Netflix trailer.

It concludes with Osaka asking a question relatable to many people who find it hard to distinguish between their work identity and who they are when they're at home with no goals to beat and nobody watching.

"For so long I tied winning to my worth as a person... anyone who'd know me would know me for being a tennis player, so what am I if I'm not a good tennis player?" she ponders.

The fact that Osaka, a young woman fulfilling her dreams, is plagued by these doubts about her self-worth and overwhelmed by pressure says, ultimately, a lot about the world we live in, where social media constantly ticks over with quick-formed judgements that reach out of our screens and impact people's real lives. But Osaka speaking out about the challenges that come with living a life that - from the outside - looks full of excitement is a step in the right direction. Let's hope that for Emma Raducanu and other budding sportswomen like her, it will pave the way for a precedent of creating boundaries of self-protection. And for the rest of us? Perhaps it will serve as a reminder that these young women on our TV screens are human, and that too much pressure isn't what any of us deserve.

Naomi Osaka comes to Netflix on 16 July.

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