For someone so young Coco Gauff has a remarkable knack for striking the right tone at the right time. But looking back on the victory ceremony after her come-from-behind US Open final win over Aryna Sabalenka on Saturday, we should have known Gauff had one more score to settle when she demanded the microphone from emcee Mary Jo Fernandez.
After giving thanks to God (“I’m so blessed in this life”) and her hard-working parents (“You believed in me from the beginning”), Gauff smoothed down her hair and moved on to thank her detractors. “I tried my best to carry this with grace,” she said, her sharpened breathing hinting at what was to come. “Honestly, to those who thought you were putting water on my fire, you were really adding gas to it – and now I’m really burning so bright right now.”
The parting shot had the 28,000 gawkers at Arthur Ashe Stadium cheering loud enough to blow the roof off. It’s the kind of shoutout one could easily imagine finding its way into a Sunday sermon or a diss track – and more than a few on social media were speculating about the rappers who might run with Gauff’s idea. And it marks a new chapter in sport’s version of the gospel of prosperity, a Christian movement in the US which teaches that God blesses the worthy with financial rewards. In the sporting version, where only the best in the athletic arena appear to receive divine favor, thanking your haters is now as much reward on earth as in heaven for athletes like Gauff.
It’s the message former NFL star Deion Sanders has been preaching since he landed as head coach at Colorado, where he was given slim chance of turning around a college football team that won a single game a year ago. When Colorado galloped to a shock 45-43 win over TCU on 3 September, upending college football convention in the process, Sanders immediately seized on the victory pulpit. “Thank you, Jesus,” he said in his postgame chat with Fox Sports TV before pivoting to the inevitable rebuke. “Guess what? We keep receipts.” He kept the same energy for Colorado’s upset of Nebraska on Saturday.
Gone are the days of ignoring your haters or shaking them off – they’re too numerous in the age of social media. Being a hater is cool now. Gauff’s online jury welcomes “the way it feels to be a hater / Something so sweet about thinking that I’m better.” So goes the Haters Anthem, by the rock group Infinity Song, which has become a deliriously popular backing track for TikTok creators to revel in the role of spoilsport.
Still, it’s one thing to watch Gauff – a 19-year-old who grew up online – push back against the negative stream, quite another to see actual holy men repackage these conviction-driven clapbacks into homilies. A cursory Google search of “sermons about haters’’ yields a staggering number of results. “Your greatness produces haters,” the sneaker preacher Deitrick Haddon once explained to his congregants. “You cannot have one without the other.”
Not everyone thinks that preachers should be addressing negativity in this way. This peculiar mix of religious conviction and petty retribution troubles Bill Lamar, pastor of Washington DC’s Metropolitan African American Methodist Episcopal Church. “The whole idea is rooted in a zero-sum capitalism that is alien to Christianity and alien to the best of the Black and African diasporic traditions,” he told me. “And that theology hurts most in the lowest socioeconomic registers where those people, instead of being taught what it means to be in community, are looking for the other people who are trying to crush them.”
But Gauff’s methods in the frivolous world of entertainment seem less harmful. Her grand slam (the statement, rather than the title) hearkened to the speech Cardi B gave after being named best new artist at the 2018 iHeartRadio awards. “I want to thank my haters,” she said, cackling as the crowd roared with approval. “They be downloading my stuff so they can hear and talk crap about it, but it benefits me – hahaha!” Sha’Carri Richardson has been saying pretty much the same thing since her return to top form at last month’s world athletics championships.
It used to be that muscular Christianity was all faith and good works and that the biggest bible thumpers in sports were the athletes who presented most meekly – Reggie White (the NFL’s minister of defense), AC Green (the pure virgin in the den of iniquity once known as the Los Angeles Lakers) and track and field’s Allyson Felix (always first to admit she runs on faith). But that was back when booing or sending angry letters was a hater’s only recourse and the press was the main conduit for bulletin board material.
Even Tim Tebow, Football Jesus, came along just before social media was a 24/7 commitment. Not even Venus Williams, whose teenage US Open breakthrough came 23 years to the day before Gauff’s triumph, really hit back at her skeptics when she was a kid. And when she did come face to face with them, her father, Richard, was usually the one to step in and tell them where to go.
Nowadays the negative feedback rushes in unbidden, at all hours, from all corners of the world. It’s easy to say Gauff should just stay off social media, but that is where the vast majority people her age live their lives. You may as well tell her not to leave her house.
Gen Z is upending what it means to be a hater; making it something to aspire to while sharing memes from the Chappelle Show’s classic Playa Haters’ Ball sketch. But of course all that snark is just cover to bully, exclude and demean people like Gauff who at best are just seizing the day, and at worst are struggling to get out of bed.
Gauff, despite the tremendous fight she shows on court, is no more immune to piercing criticism than the rest of us. “People don’t think I see [the criticism], but I see it,” said Gauff, who fell into a year-long depression and considered giving up tennis when hoped-for results didn’t come right away.
That she’d even allow herself an I-told-you so moment on Saturday shows just how profoundly her adversities have affected her; overcoming them was justifiable reason to gloat. “I’m very aware of tennis Twitter,” she continued in her post-match news conference. “I know y’alls usernames, so I know who’s talking trash and I can’t wait to look at Twitter right now.”
Ten minutes before taking the court, “I was just reading comments of people saying I wasn’t going to win today,” she added with a laugh. “That just put a fire within me.”
Her ability to fuel a brilliant performance from the slights of others was reminiscent of Michael Jordan. Given the roll Gauff is on and the rush to embrace the pessimism that powers similarly divine-inspired acts, haters everywhere should prepare to get all the smoke.