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Steve Flink: Connors memoir affirms his complexity

5/14/2013 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Everyone who monitored the remarkable career of the singularly evocative Jimmy Connors eagerly anticipated the release of his new memoir, The Outsider, for many reasons. Connors has long been an elusive individual, a man of deep complexities, a champion who perplexed, infuriated and often offended us with his conduct yet inspired a wide range of tennis observers with the purity of his game and the depth and enormity of his fighting spirit. No one who follows sports is lukewarm about this man of many contradictions; he is revered by some longtime fans for his unswerving competitiveness, detested by others for the way he behaved, lambasted by a number of authorities for his defiance and crudity, but defended ardently by his admirers for the irrevocable way he altered the landscape of the game.

To be sure, Connors has sparked debate and controversy across his lifetime, and that is the case again in his gripping, amusing, fascinating but sometimes distasteful book. Both his detractors and his boosters will have a field day when they read The Outsider. He ventures into territory he has never publicly been before, revealing an affair that nearly destroyed his marriage to Patti McGuire, confronting his serious issues with an addiction to gambling and his struggle with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, exploring his interactions with luminaries like John McEnroe, Ilie Nastase and Bjorn Borg. Connors covers everything that has mattered greatly to him over the spectrum of his life, most significantly a nightmarish incident that occurred on the public courts near his home when his mother and grandfather were beaten up mercilessly by a pair of thugs. Connors was only 8 when that happened, but the harsh reality of that experience remains uppermost in his mind, shaping and coloring everything he has done ever since.

And yet, it is how he addresses his relationship with Chris Evert that has garnered the most attention. They were the golden couple of the sport from the time they first began dating in June of 1972 until they decided not to tie the knot less than two months before their planned wedding in November of 1974. Connors writes affectionately to some degree about Evert and their memorable time together, but, in a number of ways on a variety of fronts, he disparages her. Most significantly, he chooses to reveal that she terminated a pregnancy during their courtship, and he did so without informing Evert before the book was printed. To many people, that was inexcusable.

As he writes, “An issue had arisen and a decision had to be made as a couple. I was staying in an apartment and Nasty [Ilie Nastase] was there when Chrissie called to say that she was coming out to L.A. to take care of the ‘issue.’ I was perfectly happy to let nature take its course and accept responsibility for what was to come. Chrissie, however, had already made up her mind that the timing was bad and too much was riding on her future. She asked me to handle the details.”

He claims that he did just that, and then told her, “Well, thanks for letting me know. I guess I’m just here to help.”

Connors tells us that he had become engaged to Evert while they were on their way to winning the men’s and women’s singles championships at the 1974 South African Open, but that is at odds with the documented evidence—including Evert’s account in her 1982 book Chrissie. She wrote then that the engagement took place during the 1973 South African Open. Perhaps Connors simply mixed up the years innocently and perhaps not, but the details matter because the readers of The Outsider are led to believe that the subsequent breakup of these two superstars took place only a short time after the termination of the pregnancy, but was that really so? (Incidentally, Connors has other dates in the book confused, including an incorrect reference to playing his last Grand Slam final at the 1983 U.S. Open) He writes of postponing the wedding in 1974, “It was a horrible feeling but I knew it was over. Getting married wasn’t going to be good for either of us.” He says he told Evert over the phone, ‘I’ve been thinking. We’re both pretty young. Maybe we should take a step back and think about giving it a little more time.’ She was on the East Coast but she did not hesitate. ‘O.K., if that’s what you think. I’ve got a match tomorrow. Not a problem.’”

When excerpts from the book were first released, Evert responded with a statement clarifying her thoughts on the matter. She said, “In his book, Jimmy Connors has written about a time in our relationship that was very personal and emotionally painful. I was extremely disappointed that he used the book to misrepresent a private matter that took place 40 years ago and made it public, without my knowledge. I hope everyone can understand that I have no further comment.”

That dignified response was quoted by nearly everyone who interviewed Connors last week about his book. His explanation was that he did not contact anyone before the memoir came out, and he unabashedly stressed that it was his book looking back on his own life, strongly implying that what anyone else thought or felt didn’t really matter. Yet he was overlooking the fact that he betrayed a trust on a matter that was indeed very private and even delicate. No one can be certain about the motives of Connors for traveling down that path, but his lack of courtesy is striking and, to many observers, disturbing and revelatory. Not only did he break that crucial code of privacy, but he adds insult to injury by portraying Evert as cold-hearted and callous, while making himself come across as magnanimous and sensitive. Is the Connors version of the truth believable? Was he being self-serving? Did she deserve this treatment? Could what he stated stand up to serious scrutiny? I think not. You be the judge.

Connors had other things to say regarding Evert that did not emerge in the excerpts but are nevertheless noteworthy. Alluding to arguments they had over the phone back in the day and how they were often 5000 miles apart, he writes, “I know I strayed, several times, over the two years we were together, both at home in California and on tour. I was young, hanging out with buddies like Nasty, Spencer [Segura], Dino Martin, David Schneider and Vitas Gerulaitis. What do you think happened? After every match, we would be surrounded by women. Chrissie would be in a different state or country, and the two of us might have had another fight on the phone. It happened. I’m not proud of it, but that’s what I did.”

Connors reflects on what it was like playing mixed doubles with Evert at the majors—they reached the U.S. Open final together in 1974— in those years. He makes it clear that he did not take mixed doubles as seriously as Evert, and writes, “I’ve always refused to blast the ball at my female opponent, even if the other guy is aiming at my partner…. Chrissie thought I should go ahead and bury the other woman. I would just shrug and get on with the game, and that made her even madder. Everyone has his or her own insecurities; I had mine and Chrissie had hers. In the often claustrophobic, intense world of tennis, you can feel as if everything revolves around you, and her need to be the center of attention at all times became too much.”

It is puzzling that Connors was largely so unkind and insensitive to someone with whom he shared so much when he was in his late teens and early twenties. Not only did he overstep his bounds by making a private matter public, but he seemed to pile on the criticism of a woman he almost married, and for what purpose? There was something largely unsettling about that part of the book. Connors may have believed he was simply being candid, but he sounded caustic, petty and small-minded in the process.

That was not the case when he recollected the horrific behavior of the thugs who beat his mother and grandfather on the public courts at Jones Park in East St. Louis, Illinois when Connors was eight. He was out there with his brother Johnny when the culprits arrived, and soon began disturbing the Connors family by playing their transistor radio much too loud. Jimmy’s grandfather, Pop, asked the two young men in their early twenties to turn the radio down. One of the thugs tackled Pop, grabbed him by the collar and began banging his head on the concrete court. Gloria Connors—Jimmy’s mother—came over to help her father, but she was punched hard by the thug, losing many of her teeth.

The two cowards rushed away, but for young Jimmy Connors, the world was permanently altered. He wrote of the harrowing moment, “There’s blood on the court. I can’t help them [his mother and grandfather]. I’m powerless. This day will transform me more than any other event in my life…. After watching my Mom get battered, the need for revenge ran strong in me, and I found I could use the emotion. I took my anger and used it in my tennis.”

He had a fascinating upbringing. His grandmother— whom he called “Two-Mom”, was one of the top ranked women in the St. Louis district. His mother followed suit and became a formidable player. Jimmy’s father was known as “Big Jim”, and he was the son of John T. Connors, the mayor of East St. Louis. “Big Jim” managed toll booths and was not really involved in his son’s tennis. Gloria and Two-Mon guided Jimmy ably, and grandfather “Pop” played a crucial role as well, especially in Jimmy’s training off the court, including extensive rope jumping. As for John T. Connors, he died before Jimmy was born but was a figure of some controversy. He had been police commissioner before getting elected as Mayor in 1947. John T. was among 19 people indicted for malfeasance and ignoring evidence of gambling and election irregularities.

As Jimmy Connors writes of his grandfather on his father’s side, “ For him to have survived as mayor for as long as he did, he must have been strong-willed and one hell of a mover and shaker. I sometimes wondered how many of his character traits I ended up inheriting. As time went on, I discovered more than a few.”

Connors writes about getting a phone call from his father after Jimmy won Wimbledon for the first time in 1974. “I loved my Dad, even though we weren’t as close as we might have been under different circumstances. Tennis wasn’t one of his interests and, although he approved of my dedication, he had nothing to contribute to my training the way Mom, Two-Mon and Pop did. What Dad did was give me the freedom to follow my dream, and he worked his whole life to support that. No matter what, he was always proud of me. We spoke and he told me he had watched the [Wimbledon] finals and he was happy all my hard work had paid off. I was glad he called and those people who read more into it should mind their own business and f--- off.”

Gloria, of course, was the driving force who guided her son every step of the way toward greatness. “A lot has been written about my mom being a stage mother, “writes Connors in the memoir. “ So let me set the record straight. Why was it OK for Joe Montana’s dad to teach his kid football, or Wayne Gretzky’s dad to teach him hockey, but it wasn’t OK for Gloria Connors to teach her son tennis? Mom stepped into a man’s world and a man’s game during the height of the Women’s Movement in the 1970’s. Up until that point, people weren’t used to dealing with a woman in the business end of tennis… Along comes this feisty little woman from East. St. Louis whose son was proving to be a winner, and they had to deal with her…. My Mom not only represented me but was my mother, coach and friend.”

Gloria Connors had the good sense to recognize when Jimmy was approaching 15 that he needed an authority figure and tactical expert from outside the family to take her son to the next level. Wisely, she turned to Pancho Segura, the beguiling Ecuadorian who had captured three NCAA singles titles in the 1940s before establishing himself as one of the leading professional players during the 1950’s. Segura was teaching tennis out in California. Connors moved out there to train with the strategic maestro in 1967 at 15, and Segura’s guidance was almost immeasurable. He kept coaching Jimmy through the formative pro years from 1972 to 1975 and was by his side most prominently in 1974, when Connors took three of the four majors and dominated the game ruthlessly as he turned 22.

Connors saw Segura “like a father” and soaked in all there was to absorb from the Segura reservoir of knowledge. The guileful Segura saw things on a tennis court that no one else could have observed, and delighted in sharing his wisdom with his young protégé. But Gloria believed by the middle of 1975 that her son needed to part ways with Segura. Many knowledgeable people in tennis were dumbfounded by her decision, and by the reticence of her son to prevent it from happening.

Connors writes, “Mom had doubts about the direction Pancho was taking my tennis. He wanted to work more on my short game, but Mom was convinced my serve and overheads were what needed improving. Whether this was just a smoke screen, I can’t say for sure, but when the issue of a formal contract with Pancho came up, Mom told me she thought it was time for a break and maybe we could revisit his arrangement after the summer… After everything we had been through, it must have been hard for him [Segura] not to see it as a slap in the face. I should’ve stood up to Mom on that one, but that was easier said than done. I wish I had made it clear that they were equally responsible for whatever success came my way, that they were both geniuses in their own right… Instead, I withdrew and let Mom decide how things were going to be, because that’s pretty much how it always went. For a guy who excelled at confrontation on the court, I ran from it elsewhere.”

That is one of the few admissions he makes in the book, but it is heartfelt and even surprising. Gloria Connors passed away in 2007, and apparently Connors realizes he made a serious mistake not defending Segura and keeping him officially in the fold, although Segura kept providing council when he could at the majors, even when he was not getting paid to do it. In any event, Connors has much to say in the book about his premier rivals and how he viewed them. He was influenced by Nastase’s rare gifts as a player of rich flair, finesse and imagination, but even more so by the Rumanian’s humor, lifestyle, and irreverence. Nastase was a mentor, for better or worse, and often it was the latter. Connors secured two majors in doubles with his charismatic and volatile friend, and felt he learned immensely from Nastase on and off court. He writes, “Nasty had the language and temper of the devil but a face that plenty of women loved. At the same time, he recognized the important position he held, representing Romanian culture and promoting his country as best he could. He was charming, funny and caring. He loved to party and stay out late, but drinking and gambling were not his thing, and I never saw him take drugs. As I said, for Nasty it was all about the women, scores of them, each more beautiful than the next. Nasty claimed in his autobiography that he he’d slept with over 2,500 women. I couldn’t tell you if he was exaggerating, since I was only around for 1,500 of them. His strength and stamina both on and off the court were impressive.”

About Bjorn Borg the person, Connors is fair and generous, but he is disappointingly uncharitable about the Swede’s tennis. He makes Borg out to be more or less a backboard who could impart topspin, failing to acknowledge that his rival was more adaptable than he was. Borg never lost to Connors after the American prevailed in the 1978 U.S. Open final, and Connors takes the reader through the long litany of losses, refusing to laud Borg in almost any way. But, even now, so long after suffering through an agonizing streak of defeats against a player he surpassed regularly in the early years of their rivalry, Connors seems to be fundamentally missing the point.

Four times on the lawns of Wimbledon—including the 1977 and 1978 finals—Connors lost to Borg on the fabled Centre Court. Borg confounded Connors by beefing up his first serve considerably on the grass, and by learning to slice his backhand approach down the middle to the vulnerable low Connors forehand. He gives the Swede remarkably little credit. Meanwhile, Connors writes of his own tennis, “I could end up playing five or six different ways in one match, but whichever style I used, my game was all about precision and aggression. I was always taking chances, going for it, playing with no fear and being willing to accept the consequences if it didn’t pay off. That’s the way I was taught, and being stubborn as I was, I wasn’t going to change my philosophy for anybody.”

He devalues Borg’s game decidedly across the board, but does give the Swede a backhanded compliment for a strength few recognized. “Borg had one big advantage on grass—his underrated volley.” writes Connors. “It was soft, and he didn’t bury you when he was at the net. Normally that would be a weakness, but not in the second week of Wimbledon, because by then all the serve-and-volley guys—and there were a lot of them—would have bruised the section of the court between the service line and the net—exactly where Borg’s volley would land and die instantly. That was tough to play against.”

The most renowned Connors-Borg contest was their 1976 U.S. Open final on the gray-green Har-Tru at Forest Hills. It was one of the biggest wins of the American left-hander’s career, with Connors prevailing 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (9), 6-4. But he does not even mention the pivotal third set in any detail. In that set, Connors wasted a 4-2, 40-0 lead before capturing it in a magnificent tie-break after saving four set points. That was as crucial a sequence of points as Connors ever played in his career, but it is inexplicably left out of the manuscript. He did, however, write powerfully, “Some of the shots that Borg and I played that day—he with his little wood racket and me with my [Wilson] T-2000—were just flat-out crazy. The crowd responded with the kind of passion that showed their appreciation for fierce competitors and great tennis.”

And then, of course, Connors tries to enlighten the readers about his contentious relationship with John McEnroe, with whom he was almost always at odds. Connors does not entirely succeed in clarifying why the two American southpaws disliked each other so deeply at times. But McEnroe becomes something of a springboard for the entire book as Connors opens his memoir with a stirring account of his comeback from two sets down against his rival in the 1981 final indoors at Wembley, England. He had not won a major since the 1978 U.S. Open, but this triumph over McEnroe is paramount in the mind of Connors in leading him back to the summit in 1982, when he won Wimbledon after an eight year absence and the U.S. Open later in the summer.

He writes of that explosive Wembley encounter with McEnroe, “When someone is an umpire in a match with Mac and me, he’s sitting on a ticking bomb; in fact, he’s sitting on two ticking bombs. It’s just a matter of time. It’s not if, but when.”

Of his 1982, epic five set Wimbledon final round victory over McEnroe in a stirring skirmish between towering left-handers—one of the greatest wins of his career—Connors writes, “Mac was going to attack every chance he got, looking to take the ball out of the air to counter the unpredictable bounce of the Wimbledon grass. I had to come up with a way to pin him to the baseline. The answer was clear: change my serve by putting more juice on it, flattening it out, hitting it deeper. If he managed to get his racquet on it, my forward momentum would allow me to get to the net quicker. He wouldn’t be expecting that. If I could rattle Mac and keep the match close, I could beat him.”

The gameplan was essentially successful, and down the stretch, across the last two sets, Connors rallied to win 3-6, 6-3, 6-7 (2) 7-6 (5), 6-4. But, curiously, he does not point out that the serve nearly cost him the match. Serving for the third set at 5-4, 30-30, Connors produced back to back double faults. Rather than leading two sets to one and being in the driver’s seat, Connors had to fight furiously from behind to gain the victory. Perhaps that made it sweeter, but we have no way of knowing.

Meanwhile, Connors writes poignantly about his rout of Ken Rosewall in the 1974 U.S. Open final, a win that was even more decisive than his devastatingly one-sided 6-1, 6-1, 6-4 victory over the Australian stylist in the Wimbledon final earlier that summer. As Connors asserts, “I was up against the people’s favorite, Ken Rosewall, and, once again, I reached perfection, only quicker. To reach such a peak once in your life is lucky, but to experience the sensation twice within two months is truly amazing, and it never happened for the rest of my career. It took me under 70 minutes to win 6-1, 6-0, 6-1 and complete the Connors Slam. And, boy, did it piss people off.”

Connors saves his most humble side for his wife Patti when he explains how he brought their marriage to the brink in 1983. Riding high after capturing the game’s two biggest tournaments in the previous year, Connors writes of how he lost his bearings and became too enamored of himself. It almost resulted in what he would have regarded as the biggest loss of his career.

His son Brett had been born in 1979 and they had travelled often as a family when Connors went to play tournaments. But he started pushing Patti away, discouraging her from going to the events with him, and she was understandably baffled. The reason was because Connors was having an affair that too many people were aware of. He writes, “The reason I didn’t want her at the next tournament in La Quinta [was] I wasn’t alone and some of my friends knew about ‘her’. I always claim to have no regrets about my life, but that’s not strictly true. I regret cheating on my wife and my son, and I always will. The affair was bad enough, but allowing it to become an open secret, with so many people aware of it, but not my wife, was unforgivable.”

The marriage has survived for more than thirty years. But how did Connors survive his addiction to gambling, which could have ruined his life but apparently has not? Connors alludes to one night in a casino when he lost $60,000, and another when he suffered a $70,000 setback. He writes, “I was looking for something to replace the tennis, but it shouldn’t have been this. I knew gambling on someone else wasn’t my thing. My best results have come when I’m betting on myself or making my own decisions…. But I needed the fix again. That’s what it had become, a fix I wasn’t even enjoying. “

He follows up with this: “I needed help so I joined Gamblers Anonymous. Once. That’s all it took. For five years I didn’t make a single bet. Except on golf. I mean, come on—golf….. I accept the fact that I’m a gambler and I don’t want to change. Pop was right all of those years ago. I like it too much but I know at this point in my life I can keep it under control. Maybe everyone thinks that. But everyone’s not me. I’m back on sports betting again, but only with a group of local buddies…. Do I occasionally hit the tables? Yes, I do when I’m travelling. But gambling doesn’t dominate my life anymore. I won’t let it.”

The role of Bill Riordan in the rise of Connors was substantial, and Connors gives his former manager good marks for the most part, recognizing the ways this zany promoter contributed to the success while explaining why they had a falling out in 1975. Connors reflects of his time on the Riordan circuit, “When he [Riordan] signed me, he got a young, brash, hard-hitting American. A maverick. An outsider. He made me the star of the show. As I won more and more tournaments, Bill used to schedule my matches for Wednesday rather than Monday, so that I could spend the early part of the week meeting with sponsors and local dignitaries, making small talk, playing exhibition matches. I didn’t mind one bit. I understood that this was part of Bill’s master plan to ride me to the top… Playing tennis was my thing but eventually I got a P.H. D in marketing from Riordan University.”

The book all told is entertaining and absorbing, but Connors on these pages remains elusive in so many ways, hard to comprehend in some instances, more believable in others, authentic and candid sporadically but just as often hard to trust and difficult to follow. One of my misgivings with the book is the way it is written. At times, the voice of Connors as we know it comes through clearly and unmistakably. It sounds then as if Connors is in the room talking in his customary, distinctive manner. But sometimes his voice is lost and the book reads like someone else is communicating. In many autobiographies or memoirs, a ghost writer gets a billing lower down on the cover from the famous athlete or actor.

In this book, that is not the case. The Outsider does not credit the writer. In his acknowledgments, Connors refers to Casey DeFranco and thanks him for making “it easy to express my feelings.” He then lauds his “brilliant” editor David Hirshey, a former tennis writer for The New York Daily News, which was praise well deserved. The material is well organized, but I maintain the book wanders between sounding like Jimmy Connors and listening to somebody else with a different personality. That can be disconcerting.

In the end, my view of Jimmy Connors has not changed much from what I felt as a reporter who covered his entire career. The book simply confirms how fundamentally complicated and contradictory he is. I vividly recall asking Bill Riordan to help me set up an interview with Connors at the 1974 U.S. Open. Riordan introduced me to Connors at the clubhouse in Forest Hills, and Connors told me to meet him back there in an hour because he was going to practice. I showed up early. I approached Connors when he returned and asked him if he was ready for the interview. “What interview?” he enquired with a snarl. I responded, “The one that Bill Riordan just asked you about an hour ago.” He looked at me skeptically, and walked away swiftly.

I went back to Riordan. “This is what I want you to do,” he said. “After Jimmy’s match tomorrow, go up to the locker room and wait for him outside the showers by those tables across the way. I will make sure he is there.” I did that. Connors came over at the allotted time and gave me an excellent interview. He was defensive, but he spoke his mind, and did so with clarity and conviction.

Five-and-a-half years later, I asked Connors after his quarterfinal in Philadelphia for an interview as the 1980 season began in earnest. He told me to meet him the next day when he finished his semifinal match. He then requested that we do it after the final the next day against McEnroe. He won in five pulsating sets, and then we rode back to his hotel together and did the interview up in his room. He gave me plenty of time, at least 45 minutes as I recall, even more than I requested. He could not have been any more forthcoming or cooperative.

In 1994, when Connors was taking over an ownership role while still competing on the senior tour, he agreed to an interview in Rye, New York during an event there. I brought two tape recorders as a safeguard, just in case one of the tapes was defective. He said good-naturedly, “I’ve done a lot of interviews over the years, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen this.” The session was a good one.

I have countless other memories of covering Connors from the seventies into the eighties and on into the nineties, and I was never quite sure which Jimmy Connors was going to show up, who he really was, what he actually represented. I wondered whether or not his new book would change any of my old mixed feelings about a player I rank among the ten best of all time, a competitor who set an Open Era men’s record by amassing 109 singles titles, a gladiator who secured eight Grand Slam singles championships, and a superb all court practitioner who had one of the two best returns the game has yet seen. After reading his book, I believe Connors hasn’t changed. He is still enigmatic. Connors contends near the end of the book, “I make no apologies for the way I played tennis. I wasn’t out there to win a popularity contest. I was out there to win and entertain at the same time. The thing is, I was good at being a bad boy. A real one. Not like some of the pretend boys who said sorry after every incident. Face up to it or don’t do it…..I could be a prick. I had to be one. Because when I was good, I was merely good but when I was bad, I was great.”
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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.