Jimmy Connors made history as the only man to win the U.S. Open on three different surfaces. These days, Connors is making headlines with his new memoir, “The Outsider”, which details the life and times of the man who exuded intensity on court with all the brilliance Times Square elicits light at night.
The ultra-combative Connors brought out the artistry—and appetite for assault—in the man he calls his toughest rival.
"There were times on the court I wanted to beat him so bad I felt like I wanted to strangle him and I'm sure he felt the same way about me," John McEnroe told me. "Jimmy is the ultimate battler, the ultimate hustler, the ultimate fighter. He is the only guy I ever played who, I would be trying as hard as I possibly could, and I'd look across the net and he would be trying even harder. He hated losing."
The five-time U.S. Open champion returned to New York City, the site of his inspired run to the 1991 U.S. Open semifinals at age 39, this week to appear on the YES Network's "CenterStage" to promote his new book. Sporting the suit-and-tie style he often wore during his days coaching Andy Roddick, Connors looked relaxed and fit (despite hip surgery, he still walks quickly and fluidly). Wielding his trademark Wilson T-2000 racquet, Connors reigned as world No. 1 for five consecutive years and transformed the return of serve, which was largely a defensive shot in the pre-Open Era, into a feared offensive weapon.
Now 60, Connors is more AARP than ATP—though the renegade from Belleville, Ill. freely admits that he was never exactly an organizational kind of guy. "I was always better on my own," Connors says. "When you're on top, that's okay, but when you don't win and you can't sell out stadiums, then your name is lost in a hurry."
Connors was jovial and thoughtful during a wide-ranging 75-minute interview with host Michael Kay, the voice of the New York Yankees, during taping conducted in a small studio on West 57th Street before an enthusiastic audience of about 100 people. During his playing days, Connors could be both a charismatic and combative interview subject—depending on his mood—but I've always respected the fact he's strong enough to say what he believes without giving a damn if you accept it or not, and that he's the rare champion who actually seemed to love the game and the grind even more the longer he played.
That familiar passion was on display during his interview with Kay, which included his thoughts on the influence his mother and grandmother had on his life and game; reflections on his tennis mentors, friends, and rivals; and his battle with obsessive-compulsive disorder that caused him to bounce the ball repeatedly before serving (as Novak Djokovic did for a time in his younger years) and check and check and re-check the locks on his doors at home before going to bed each night.
The Connors interview will premiere on Wednesday, June 19 at 11 p.m. Eastern time (after the Yankees-Dodgers Post-Game show) on YES Network. Some highlights of Connors’ comments:
On his departed mother and grandmother, who taught him "a woman's game to beat men": "I still ask her every Sunday: What do you think? Did I live up to your expectations?"
On Andre Agassi’s assertion that he was cold: “I [read Agassi’s book]; everyone puts [their story] in their book the way they believe it should be. He is different from me. He said he didn’t love tennis. I loved every minute of it…His game was something special and he came along with Sampras, Courier, and Chang and helped push [tennis] forward.”
On moving from Illinois to California to train at the Beverly Hills Country Club with coach Pancho Segura when he was a teenager: “Pancho was the pro at Beverly Hills, so Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Pancho Gonzalez and Bobby Riggs would all come by to play…Dean Martin poured me my first drink. I was so in awe of him pouring it, I actually drank it. How do you turn down a drink from Dean Martin?”
On reports his mother, Gloria, dated Chris Evert’s father, Jimmy, when they were growing up: “Mom was good friends with Mr. Evert. Where that went, I don’t know.”
On mentor and occasional doubles partner Pancho Gonzalez: “The first time I saw Gonzalez, I couldn’t believe it. I had never seen anything like it—he was a big man with power who moved with grace and elegance. He offered good advice: Tennis and alcohol don’t mix…We were playing doubles together and he asked for orange juice so I drank it too [not knowing it was spiked with alcohol]. After about the third changeover, I’m thinking ‘I’m not feeling too hot out here.’ It was a painful lesson to learn.”
On mentor and doubles partner Ilie Nastase: “His mentoring me was crazy. He was crazy and that drove me. His tennis was the best I’d seen. Even today, after all this time, we’re still good friends.”
On rival Bjorn Borg: “I have the ultimate respect for Borg. His game was great; he was difficult to play because I couldn’t see inside him. I hit him with my best material and couldn’t get him to crack a smile. I could not read him.”
On the toughest server he ever faced: “Kevin Curren.”
On his obsessive-compulsive disorder that caused him to bounce the ball repeatedly before serving early in his career: “I thought I was nervous—and I was—but I could not bounce it and let it go. At one point I bounced it 30 times and someone from the stands yelled ‘Serve the ball!’ I said ‘I can’t.’ It turned out, I have OCD. It wore me out. I’m sitting here pretty calm right now, but stick around and I can put on a show...”
On his toughest opponent: “Johnny Mac. It’s no secret we butted heads—a lot. The first time I played him, I knew he was gonna be a star. The way we fit into each other’s games and minds brought out the best in me. There’s still tension…It was a true, hard-fought rivalry. Even today, I still feel some sort of rivalry with Mac. I wonder ‘Why is it still in me?’ I tell myself ‘Let it go, Jimmy’ but [I can’t].”
On his relationship with tennis: “A lot of people think I’m still bitter because I can’t play anymore. I’m not. I left it all out there. Sure, I would love to put my game out there against Federer, Nadal and Djokovic—just because I love the competition.”