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Connors’ memoir details career with contradictions, criticisms of colleagues

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Jimmy Connors

Jimmy Connors recounts his 1991 U.S. Open run at age 39 in his memoir. (Manny Millan/SI)

Jimmy Connors has a clear idea who he believes Jimmy Connors to be. Outsider. Rebel. Fighter. Purist. A guy who didn’t give a damn about what you thought and had no problem letting you know that with creative language and choice fingers. The thing is, Connors is selling himself short. Whether he meant to or not, Connors paints a picture of a complicated individual full of contradictions in his memoir, The Outsider.

Over the course of 401 pages, the eight-time major champion tells the tale of an undersized kid from East St. Louis, Ill., who was taught his (at the time) unorthodox baseline game by two unyieldingly strong women, went Hollywood after moving to Los Angeles at 16 to train under master tactician Pancho Segura and came to dominate in the mid-1970s. Ferraris, the Playboy mansion, rubbing elbows with Frank Sinatra and Marlene Dietrich? Not bad for a kid from the Midwest.

Of course, with any Hollywood story comes the inevitable trappings of success and excess. Connors opens up about his gambling addiction and the infidelity that almost ruined his marriage. If you’re looking for graphic details of the hard-partying days of the tennis in the ’70s, you’re out of luck. He makes it clear he wasn’t exactly keeping curfew every night but leaves the rest to the reader’s imagination.

He devotes chapters to his “Love Double” relationship and engagement to Chris Evert. The revelations have made headlines ahead of the book’s release next Tuesday. He portrays her as emotionally distant and cold while revealing, though not explicitly saying, that he got her pregnant and she had an abortion before they were to wed in 1974. That Connors does everything to imply the nature of “the issue” brought upon by “youthful passion” without actually saying the words or even telling Evert that he planned to write about it is his biggest misstep. It’s only purpose in the story is to titillate and sell books. (Connors actually does use the word “abortion” once. It comes up in his infamous spat with a chair umpire in his memorable run to the 1991 U.S. Open semifinals at age 39.)

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Not surprisingly, Connors takes some shots at his racket-wielding colleagues. He calls Arthur Ashe a coward. To the All-England Club, he writes “to put it in terms they can understand, they could sod off, the wankers.” I think it’s safe to say Connors isn’t one to let go of a grudge. He saves his most potent ammo for Andre Agassi. Connors believes Agassi disrespected him early in his career only to turn around and seek Connors as a coach years later.

“Tennis gave Agassi everything,” Connors writes, “his fame, his money, his reputation, even his current wife — and he went on to knock it in his book. All that playing up to the fans who had provided him with an exceptional living — it was a bluff. For me tennis was all about standing out there and being honest, not pretending to be something I wasn’t.”

Jimmy Connors

Jimmy Connors’ memoir, “The Outsider,” is available starting next week.

Yet Connors provides enough anecdotes to make you question his claims of authenticity. He wasn’t above playing up contrived disputes and stirring up controversy just to entertain the crowd. He said he played tennis for the love of the game, but page after page is devoted to the financial implications of his matches and how he chose tournaments based on how much the under-the-table incentive payments were. He loved winning more than anything but spoke flippantly about getting defaulted from matches because of his brash antics or just skipping Grand Slam events altogether because of a simple grudge.

Those are just a small example of the contradictions that seem to exist within Connors and make him one of the most compelling characters to ever play. He said he doesn’t care what people think of him or whether he’s loved or loathed. That renegade bravado may be true, but it belies his soft underbelly.

It’s Connors’ sensitive and vulnerable side that draws you in. He’s at his best when he takes off his cowboy hat and writes about the things that really matter to him. Whether it’s his tearful ode to the rag-tag group of dogs that helped him transition into retirement or his humility and thankfulness that his wife, Patti, stuck by him through all his indiscretions, Connors is at his most honest and convincing when he speaks from the heart.

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He writes about his mother, Gloria, grandmother Brenda Thompson (whom he calls “Two-Mom”) and grandfather Al Lynch Thompson (“Pop”) with moving awe and affection. They’re the ones who taught him “a woman’s game, but given to a man to beat men.” He recounts seeing his mother and grandfather violently attacked during a family practice session when he was 8 and how his mother taught him to channel that anger into his tennis. To the critics who railed on him for being a “Mama’s Boy” and questioned her heavy involvement in his career, Connors puts up his dukes.

“Why was it OK for Joe Montana’s dad to teach his son football or Wayne Gretzky’s dad to teach him hockey but it wasn’t OK for Gloria Connors to teach her son tennis?” he writes.

In 1997, Connors declined the Tennis Hall of Fame’s invitation to become an inductee because he didn’t feel like he was done with tennis. Months later, he reconsidered.

“I realized that accepting my place in the Tennis Hall of Fame would give me a chance to publicly recognize all those people who had made my career possible,” he writes.

His memoir is a reflection of that. For all the stories of matches won and lost and the ups and downs of a career made during tennis’ Wild West era, his is a story of the small cadre of loyalists who backed him even when he gave them every reason to let go.

Jimmy Connors may have been an outsider, but he was never alone.

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  • Published On May 10, 2013
  • 7 comments
    10sManToo
    10sManToo

    Jimmy drove the game like no one else. He brought in the casual sports fan like no one else. He was not perfect and never claimed to be. He was a major part of the tennis boom. Our great game of tennis misses guys like Jimmy and there will never be another Jimmy. In my mind he is and will always be considered one of the greatest tennis players and athletes of our time..Can't wait to read the book!@JimmyConnors

    kevinmoorer2
    kevinmoorer2

    and what has Jimmy Connors done to give back to the game that made him rich....nothing compared to arthur being davis cup captain and fighting and losing his battle against AIDS, McEnroe and Chris have done wonders for junior tennis in the U.S..Watch Arthur Ashe dismantle Jimmy at Wimbledon again says all about the tennis acumen of those two men

    kevinmoorer2
    kevinmoorer2 like.author.displayName 1 Like

    Borg was a better champion than Jimmy will ever be and he knows it. Arthur Ashe was a better father and humanitarian. But the best thing for tennis history is that Jimmy Connors did not marry Chris Evert.She would not have won 18 championships being married to someone as self absorbed as Jimmy Connors

    Tanner
    Tanner

    I'd like to read this book. Don't like using Evert as a hook to use get publicity, calling Ashe a coward would suffice, however since I haven't seen the context I won't comment. As an on court ill tempered teen ager I gravitated to him,  What many younger people don't remember is that Connors was not embraced by the tennis establishment and older fans. At a time before rooting for American players was your patriotic duty, Jimmy was booed at Forest Hills and not until the move to Flushing Meadows did the crowds embrace him.

     

    Tennis is the most individual of sports, once you come on court there are no coaches, cornermen or teammates to blame on loses, maybe the odd linesmen but any adjustments in tactics are on you. There where no guaranteed contracts someone beats you it comes out of your paycheck, why wouldn't a tennis player be all about him or herself.

     

    As far as playing to the crowd, well what is so bad about that? In his later years Connors would you the crowd to keep himself up and psych out his about, well they paid to watch make them feel part of it, John McEnroe never learned to do that, even in his years on the senior circuit when he should have known he should have embraced the spectators he always gave the vibe that he'd rather they be watching on TV then intruding on his personal space.

    clemente21
    clemente21 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

     @Tanner Yeah, Arthur Ashe sure showed a lot of cowardice over the years fighting a disease he should've never have gotten and did it with grace and class.  I like Connors but that pot shot on a dead guy no less shows that this guy is a huge contradiction and would be lucky to have half the class and strength of an Arthur Ashe.

    Vinny Cordoba
    Vinny Cordoba like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

    Boy, that's rich -- Connors saying he was "not pretending to be something I wasn’t." This guy was the biggest ham in the history of the game. He played up to the crowd every chance he got. It was a pure act, a way to draw attention to himself.

    badgernation74
    badgernation74 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 5 Like

    If people were mad for what he said about Evert, wait until the backlash hits for calling Arthur Ashe a coward. Ashe wasn't a saint who was right in everything he did, but he faced the challenges in his life with more courage and grace than most people could ever imagine. WOW!