Inside Story

Monday, May 20, 2013 /by
Ellen Wallop/YES Network
Ellen Wallop/YES Network

It’s been hard to miss Jimmy Connors over the past week in New York City. He’s made pit stops at The Today Show, Mike and Mike, CenterStage, Hannity, and Charlie Rose, among, I assume, many others. He’s been written about in the Daily News, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, along with just about every other outlet in the country. And anyone who happened to walk past the restaurant in the Peninsula Hotel at the corner 55th and 5th in Manhattan would likely have caught a glimpse of him there, ensconced at one of the tables up front, answering one question after another. Jimbo always did say he liked to grind.

I caught up with Connors at the start of this particular five-set marathon at the Peninsula. He was there, of course, to promote his new autobiography, The Outsider, but he didn’t look out of place among the spiffy tourists and businessman sipping $20 gin and tonics. Connors was in a dark blue suit himself, and while his hair was edged with gray, none of it was out of place. Listening to him quietly answer questions that he must have been asked 10 times already that day, it was hard to imagine that this was the same man who, 20-odd years ago, had gyrated his way to the semifinals of the U.S. Open in short-shorts at age 39, and held this city in his grip while he did it.

That’s one reason Connors says he’s doing this book now, two decades after his retirement and well after much younger tennis stars, such as Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, and even Rafael Nadal, have put their lives on paper.

“It’s been long enough,” Connors says. “I have some perspective on my tennis career, and I saw it a little differently than I did when I was in the thick of it. It was hard to give up playing, and I kept at it [on the senior tour] until the end of the '90s. But now I can look at it as a whole.”

Connors, like most athletes, has never been known as an introspective type, or one prone to revealing every detail of his life. His beloved grandmother, Bertha Thompson—known to Jimbo as Two-Mom—once told him, “Keep a little mystery about yourself,” and Connors says he lived by those words his entire life. 

“It was hard work doing this, remembering everything, digging everything up,” Connors admits. “It’s amazing what comes back to you; some things you wish wouldn’t have come back to you.”

When I ask if there are any misconceptions about him that he wanted to clear up, Connors fixes his eyes on me. I flash back to the bug-eyed way he stared across the net as he destroyed Bjorn Borg in the 1978 U.S. Open final. Is he going to treat me the way he treated the tennis ball in that match?

“Read the book,” he says. Next question.

I have read the book, and I can say that it's worth the time of any tennis fan, especially any fan of the game's Wild West 1970s and early 80s. It’s also not exactly what I expected. Connors says “it’s not a tennis book,” and I can see what he means. Written with his long-time friend Casey DeFranco, The Outsider glosses over many of his familiar on-court triumphs fairly quickly—one of his most definitive, his run to the title at the first U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, in '78, is covered in a couple of paragraphs. What we get more of is Connors’ off-court life, his relationships with his mother, his grandparents, his older brother Johnny (you might describe him as a tennis version of presidential brothers like Billy Carter or Roger Clinton), his coach Pancho Segura, his wife, Patti, and their struggles through the years, as well as his early relationship with Chris Evert.

That last story is what made The Outsider a source of controversy well before its May 14 release. Connors says that he didn’t want to hold anything back; unfortunately, that included the previously unknown fact that a very young Evert had an abortion while they were engaged, and that it contributed to their break-up. From Connors’ perspective, the revelation might seem justified on the grounds that it was a major event in his life. But it was unfair to Evert, who has been blindsided and hurt by the episode. Connors claims that he has talked to Chris since, but declines to say anything more about the conversation.

While that revelation comes at her expense, Connors does confess his share of his own sins and embarrassments. The book reads much like the memoir of that hotheaded Irish-American star of the Open era, John McEnroe. Like virtually every star athlete, Jimmy and Mac both achieve unexpected youthful glory, and then spend the rest of their story confronting the indignities of physical decline and the frightening sense of aimlessness that greets them when they retire. Jimbo admits that he has OCD, though it wasn’t diagnosed until he was in his 30s. He talks about the arrogance that led him to cheat on his wife and briefly leave her and their son, Brett, in the early 1980s. He owns up to an “out of control” gambling addiction. In 1992, he successfully placed a million-dollar bet on himself in his Battle of the Sexes match with Martina Navratilova in Las Vegas. Later he would, as he says, “piss away” an untold fortune on sports betting, until Patti finally staged an intervention and sent him to Gambler’s Anonymous.

Through all of this, Jimbo’s attitude alternates between defiance and, again like McEnroe, a surprising vulnerability—the mask of bravado that he wore as a player is often dropped, sometimes to his own chagrin. After describing the end of one relationship, Connors reflects, “Looking back at it now, I wonder why all the women I broke up with took the news so easily.” Connors talks with real warmth about his long-running friendship with bad-boy mentor Ilie Nastase. “God tennis was fun back then,” Jimbo suddenly gushes, in a poignant burst of nostalgia for the old days, his own youthful days, as he thinks back to one of Nasty’s nastier moments at Forest Hills. 

“This is a great era,” Connors tells me when I ask what he thinks of the game today, “but every era has had great champions. There’s not much individuality now. When I played, everyone seemed to have their own game and personality, and I don’t think that’s as true now.”

What is true, thinking back on watching Jimmy in his prime, was that there was a connection, an electric current, that he could establish with an audience, with an entire stadium—sometimes the crowd loved him, sometimes it hated him, but people were caught up in the match when Connors played. I don’t think I’ve seen that, in quite the same way, with any player since.

"How do you get more people to like tennis? That's the question I always had in mind when I played," Connors says. "Back then, we couldn't take for granted that there was going to be an audience for it."

The book comes with some emotional highs and lows, one of which is Jimbo’s unabashed love for the pet dogs that have been his “shrinks” in his retirement. Most moving, though, is his recollection of the death of his grandmother, Bertha, of a heart attack, just as his career was about to take off in 1972.

“How could Two-Mom, the woman who had done so much for me, who had made me laugh, chased after my stray tennis balls, cooked and cleaned for me, treated me to ice cream and soda—how could she not be here anymore? How was it possible that she would never see me walk onto Centre Court at Wimbledon, play for my country, win the U.S. Open five times, or any of the things we had dreamed about together? She would never know what became of me....We’d been through so much hard work together and now, just as things were starting to get good, she had left us.”

Connors can be coarse and self-justifying, he wasn't kind to Evert, and, like most tennis players, he’s focused on his own needs and problems. But he’s also someone I liked by the end of this book’s 400 pages.

*****

(A side note: There’s at least one name that Connors doesn’t divulge. It’s that of a journalist who, according to Jimmy, wrote that he saw Connors doing coke while on-court at Wimbledon in 1980. “That guy’s a dishonest pr--k and he knows who he is,” Jimmy concludes in his book.

That supposedly dishonest so-and-so is my colleague, Peter Bodo. In his 1994 book on the pro tour, The Courts of Babylon, Pete wrote that he had, briefly, wondered whether Connors might be snorting cocaine out of a towel on Court 3 at Wimbledon in 1980. But when he asked one of Connors’ cronies about it, the man scoffed and said that “Jimmy would never fool around with that dope.”

The point Pete was trying to make was that he had realized how ridiculous it had been to think that Connors would join that era’s vogue for coke, and that under the cocky bad-boy image lurked the heart of a midwestern straight-arrow. Jimbo, obviously, never read it that way.)

When I finished The Outsider, I felt like I had learned a lot about what had happened to Jimmy Connors over the court of his life, from his point of view. But I also felt like some of what I knew, the myth of Jimbo, the reason he had been a rebel icon in the first place, was missing. He had, as I said, sped past some of his defining moments as a player. And he had debunked at least one legend from his life:

The story goes that, rather than walk in Wimbledon’s centenary parade of champions in 1977, Connors had snubbed the All England Club and the Duke of Kent by practicing on an outside court with Nastase as the ceremony was taking place. It made him persona non grata at the club, but also something of a punk hero on the streets of London. It turns out, as Connors writes here, that the real reason he had missed the ceremony wasn't because he was making a punk gesture. Rather, he had an injured thumb, had needed to see a doctor about it that afternoon, and had tried his best to make it to Centre Court, only to be shut out at the gate at the last second. 

Frankly, I liked the story better when it was a thumb in All England’s eye, rather than an injured thumb. And I wondered: Which is the more meaningful life, the factually correct and occasionally banal one that Connors tells here? Or the fan’s version, the one where Jimbo is a rebel through and through, sticking it to the tennis establishment? That particular fan’s story was told by Joel Drucker a few years ago in his memoir, Jimmy Connors Saved My Life. To Drucker, Connors was the man who showed him that caring about things, fighting for things, and putting yourself on the line was more rewarding than playing it cool. He found meaning in Connors, and a myth that Jimbo himself probably can’t believe, because he knows his own story too well.

The two tales, the star’s and the fan’s, are different, but for the purposes of everyone not named James Scott Connors, they’re equally real and equally valid. We’ve had the myth for decades. It’s good, finally, to hear from the man.

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