The Sports Bookie -- Jimmy Connors holds serve in autobiography

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Tennis balls to the wall. That describes Jimmy Connors, who could be electrifying, crass, exhilarating, sarcastic, gutsy, childish, confrontational and funny — in the same match.

Fans were never cheated when Connors played a match. “This is boxing at 90 feet,” he writes in “The Outsider: A Memoir” (HarperCollins; hardback, $28.99, 401 pages). Connors, now 60, certainly doesn’t pull any punches as he reflects on a career that included eight Grand Slam singles titles and a No. 1 ranking for 160 consecutive weeks. Aided by his powerful double-fisted backhand, he reached a tournament final 163 times, winning 109 of them.

Connors dated “America’s Sweetheart” in a well-publicized tennis “love doubles” pairing and married a Playboy playmate of the year. He recorded a song written for him by Paul Anka, “Girl, You Turn Me On,” that bombed. He once received a telephone call from Marlene Dietrich at his hotel room in Paris and then a framed photograph with a bawdy inscription from the legendary actress. And Connors once reveled in listening to Frank Sinatra during a private recording session.

In tennis and in life, whether he was executing a drop shot or dropping an F-bomb, Connors did it his way. It wasn’t always the right way, and he acknowledges his professional and personal indiscretions in this autobiography. But always, the tone in “The Outsider” shows Connors at his best: a swaggering, defiant attitude and a love for tennis that he still wears on his sleeve.

His grandmother, Bertha “Two-Mom” Thompson, summed it up best: “You can get away with almost anything if you win.”

Women played a big role in shaping Connors’ tennis career — his mother, Gloria Connors, and “Two-Mom” taught him “a woman’s game, but given to a man to beat men.” Connors, as he has throughout his career, fiercely defends his mother and the perception that he was a “mama’s boy.”

“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.

Connors gives plenty of detail about his matches and career, and he doesn’t hold back. John McEnroe, his greatest rival who was practically a mirror image of the feisty left-hander, looked like “the Pillsbury Doughboy with a headband” when they first met. An astute student of gamesmanship, Connors walked right by McEnroe when the young New Yorker tried to introduce himself for the first time before a match (won by Connors).

Connors opens “The Outsider” with an epic match against McEnroe, an electrifying comeback from two sets down in the final of the 1981 Benson & Hedges final in Wembley, England. It highlights Connors’ never-say-die attitude.

While Connors writes lovingly about his coach, Pancho Segura, and longtime friends Ilie Nastase and Vitas Gerulaitis, other players are slammed, grandly. Connors writes that Arthur Ashe would not confront him about their differences. “Instead, he left a note in my locker at Wimbledon outlining his position.” Andre Agassi was “never my kind of guy,” Connors writes, noting that while tennis gave him everything (“his fame, his money, his reputation, even his current wife”) he “went on to knock it in his book.”

But it is Connors’ relationship with Chris Evert during the mid-1970s that has generated the most buzz. Connors doesn’t come out and say Evert aborted a pregnancy, but writes that “an issue had arisen as a result of youthful passion and a decision had to be made as a couple.” He writes that Evert went to Los Angeles to take care of that “issue.” Their planned wedding would be scrapped.

I’ve interviewed Evert one-on-one before and have attended her news conferences. When she didn’t like a question, she repeated it to give her time to frame an answer. Her glare could be piercing — the “Ice Maiden” nickname she earned was mostly because of her calm demeanor on the court, but she could make a point without saying a word — so one has to wonder what her private conversation with Connors was like after that bombshell was dropped (he did not give her advance warning).

Connors has talked to Evert since the news broke. Wisely, he said he’d leave the contents of that conversation private.

Connors does go public with his own faults. He had obsessive compulsive disorder and ocular motor sensory deficit as a child. As a player, he had to bounce the tennis ball a certain number of times before serving, and at home, he was constantly checking to see if his doors and windows were locked.

He wooed and married Patti McGuire, the centerfold for the November 1976 issue of Playboy — an issue that was famous for presidential candidate Jimmy Carter’s controversial interview (“I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times,” Carter told interviewer Robert Sheer).

Connors confronts his own adultery and marital difficulties with McGuire, explaining that “I’ve never cheated you on the court, so I’m not going to cheat you in this book.”

He also addresses his testy relationship with his older brother Johnny, and his gambling addiction. For his challenge match against Martina Navratilova, Connors bet $1 million on himself to not only win in straight sets, but also to win without dropping more than eight games (He won 7-5, 6-2). But losing $70,000 on a hand of blackjack convinced him to join Gamblers Anonymous.

And Connors recounts his 2008 arrest by campus police at Cal-Santa Barbara for his “failure to leave campus” after a shoving incident before a basketball game. But he quips that his mug shot was “better than Nick Nolte’s, that’s for sure …”

Connors’ impact on the game of tennis is secure; he was part of a movement that took the game out of its bland, country club atmosphere and made it raw, gritty and personal.

“I make no apologies for the way I played tennis,” he writes. “You know my motto: You can be for me or against me, I don’t care, just as long as you are there.”

“The Outsider” puts the reader right “there.” Connors is entertaining and outrageous — to a fault.
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  1. BucCollector's Avatar
    Great review, thank you.