In his heyday in the ’70s and ’80s, Jimmy Connors was cast—and he didn’t exactly protest—as the bad boy of tennis. Brash and cocky, he would dramatically argue with line judges and his fellow players. He didn’t like to hang out in the locker room after matches to chitchat with his colleagues. Connors grew up in downtrodden East St. Louis and made his way to the top of tennis through a mixture of grit, talent and unrelenting work. His new memoir is titled The Outsider, a title that’s perfectly apt but stresses the defiant aspects of his personality, when it’s the more quiet insights into his life—his relationship with his mother (who was also his business manager), his infidelity to his wife, his eventual forgiveness of his brother’s transgressions—that propel this honest book. Tennis fanatics will flock to The Outsider for the tidbits Connors dishes about the game (and the Chris Evert abortion episode that's erupted recently), but it’s what he reveals about himself that makes the book memorable. I asked him recently whether he’s an outsider or if that’s just the story that’s built up around him.
Do you think this book will cement your image as an outsider or help people understand why you were viewed that way?
I don’t know. I called it that because it was more or less my point of view. I didn’t join all those tennis associations when I was growing up in St. Louis; I felt I was better on my own. I never was a locker-room rat, even though I had friends. I took care of my business and got away, because when I left the courts, I wanted to be able to escape tennis a bit. When I was at a very young age, trying to play in St. Louis, I wasn’t a member of the cliques that went on, and sometimes practice was a tough thing. From an early age, I was fighting to figure out how to get better, and because of that, there was certainly a feeling I got from a lot of situations I was in of being an outsider. As I got older and turned pro and started making my way, joining and being a part of the pack just wasn’t my thing. I thought I was better on my own.
Some writers say that writing is cathartic and helps you recover from the pain of a memory, and other writers say that writing just brings all the pain up again—what was it like for you?
Well, so far it’s brought it all back again. I was happy to leave my past in the past, and sitting down and writing the book certainly brought all that back and then some. I went way back, more than 40 years, to when I was a kid, and I relived a lot of that and what that meant and how it formed me and made me what I have become, and that was a little rough.
You write that your mom was a crusading woman at a time when female managers weren’t accepted in the business of tennis but that the tennis establishment and the bureaucracy vilified her as a stage mom. Could you talk a bit about what she was like and what she means to you and your game?
It’s a well-known fact that my mom gave me everything: the tennis, the education, knowing what it was like to work hard and to strive to be as good as you can and give it everything you can every time you walk out there and accept nothing less. That was the late ’60s and early ’70s, and things were starting to change for women back then and dealing with the changes we were going through, burning the bras and all that, and she was dealing with men as a manager and those who ran the tennis business. She was tough. There was no doubt about it. Right or wrong the decision, she always had my best interest at heart, and that was never in question. Nothing works out 100 percent of the time, and mistakes were made along the way but always with the best intent. That’s a tough hat for anyone to wear: She was my mom, and she was my coach, and she was my friend. Where do you separate all three? And after everything we’ve been through, when the tennis was put on the shelf and we’re having dinner, how do you speak to each other?
Do you think she just sloughed off any bad treatment from the tennis establishment, or did it get to her?
I think she was aware of it, but I don’t think that mattered. I think she had a job to do, and that’s really what she was out there to do. And did she slough it off? Probably. But you get a feel for what’s going on, and if she did, she didn’t let it bother her. She was tough, anyway, and she had to be. I think a lot of the things that went on gave her a tougher skin.
You write in the book that there’s a lot of wasted motion in today’s tennis, but how else has the game changed since you were active in it?
Well, when I was playing, it was more the basic fundamentals of how tennis was being played at the time. I had a very simple game—the movement of the feet, getting the racquet back and getting prepared, that was being tough. And certainly since that time, the larger racquets, the changing of the strings that makes it easier for topspin, the way the courts are now, the grass at Wimbledon equals the clay in France—the game has become more of a power game: 150 mph serves are the norm. It seems to be a straightforward power game. Back in my day, there were some guys that had power, but maybe it wasn’t as noticeable back then; there was more of an all-around game.
It seems like that’s something to lament.
I look back and say that I had the best of it. I’m old school, and I’m old school pretty much in everything that I do. That’s the way I was raised. I like old-school music, I like old-school movies, I like old-school sports—not that today isn’t great. It’s just where I came from and what I like. The game’s going to go full circle; it always does. Right now, we’re riding a wave of how we play now. How long will that last until somebody comes around and plays like we used to?
Claiborne Smith is the features editor at Kirkus Reviews.