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.)
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.”
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.
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.