Though “The Outsider”, Jimmy Connors’ memoir was published earlier this summer, it seemed like a good time to review this “tell all and tell off” from the Hall of Fame inductee, especially with the former No. 1 set to make another return to the tennis spotlight.
For younger tennis fans or even those new to its history, Connors remains one of the sport’s great champions. Connors held the No. 1 ranking for five consecutive years and collected 109 singles titles (still the ATP record) that includes eight majors. He may have even won the elusive calendar year Grand Slam in 1974. But he wasn’t allowed to after the French Tennis Federation banned Connors from participating at Roland Garros that year after he committed to play in the then newly formed World Team Tennis venture.
Connors doesn’t hold a grudge against that decision and it is probably due to the fact that he profited greatly from playing in as many exhibitions and highly publicized “Challenge Matches” in Las Vegas during his heyday as the sport’s top player in the mid-1970’s. During that time, multiple professional tours existed along with the Grand Slams and ITF events. Connors’ recollections of that “wild west” era during the professional game’s history makes for some of the best sections in the book.
Throughout “The Outsider”, Connors’ tone comes across as half boasting and half nostalgic as he recounts his rise as a young junior player from East St. Louis before he headed west to Los Angeles to be coached and mentored by Pancho Segura. That connection came about due to Connors’ mother having spent time not only playing the sport, but coaching Hollywood stars in her younger days. Reading Connors talk about partying and hobnobbing with the elite of Tinseltown in his early 20s didn’t exactly strike me as being an “outsider”, especially with Connors meeting his future wife at a party at the Playboy Mansion. This, of course, was after Connors split with his former girlfriend Chris Evert.
The splitting up of the ultimate tennis couple from that time made even more news this summer after the book’s publication. Connors reveals a very personal decision Evert had to make before their eventual split – a revelation that Evert herself kept secret until Connors’ book came out. While Evert, and many others, criticized Connors’ decision to “tell all”, literally, it is in keeping with the rest of the book. Connors doesn’t shy away from revealing much about his life. That includes his affair that nearly ended his marriage, his ongoing gambling problem (he made frequent bets on himself with London bookies before competing at Wimbledon multiple times), his drinking problem, his brief addiction to painkillers and his open dislike of former players. Andre Agassi’s recent confessional book from a few years ago must have struck a raw nerve with Connors as he wastes no time telling us what he really thinks of the U.S. star.
After all these years, there’s still a chip on Connors’ shoulder. After some passages where he again lays it out straight in terms of a specific match or moment in his personal life, he often ends with a line that tells the reader that if they don’t like his viewpoint, then they know where they can cram it. (He uses more frank language). And that seems to get at the heart of the book. While no one can deny Connors’ achievements and place among the sport’s greats, reading “The Outsider”, I got the feeling that Connors still doesn’t feel appreciated, especially today 30 plus years after his reign on top of the sport.
Why? You’d have to ask him. Perhaps it is due to him not being in the spotlight so much as other of his contemporaries like John McEnroe, who now does frequent television commentary, and Ivan Lendl, who has reemerged to form a successful coaching partnership with Andy Murray. Connors has tried coaching current players with very mixed results. In the book, he discusses his short tenure with Andy Roddick. Of course, this summer Connors formed a brief alliance with Maria Sharapova. That pairing made absolutely no sense to many except for Connors and Sharapova themselves. As we know, it ended as soon as it started after Sharapova lost an opening round match in Cincinnati. That prompted Connors’ now famous “vodka on the rocks” message on Twitter just before the expected breakup announcement was made.
He may have felt neglected of late, but the spotlight on Connors is turning back on yet again. A new documentary on ESPN about Connors called “This Is What They Want” debuts tonight. Connors is also scheduled to participate in the upcoming PowerShares Series next year – a traveling tour of former top players that in some ways, borrows from the successful Champions Tour Connors played in and helped form back in the mid 1990’s. His return to competition is expected to feature him squaring off and, likely squabbling back, at his old nemesis McEnroe in a throwback to a time when swearing and cracking racquets was all part of the show.
“Isn’t this what they paid for? Isn’t this what they want?”, is perhaps Connors’ most famous line, spoken directly into a television camera as he, at the age of 39, battled his way into the US Open semifinals in 1991. As he is poised to make yet another comeback into the public eye, only after reading “The Outsider” can you answer if you are ready for yet another chapter in the life of one of the sport’s most controversial yet most celebrated players.