The Outsider: A Memoir
“It’s the sounds of the match that have stayed with me over the years. Every shot echoed around that tight stadium like a bullet ricocheting off the walls.” Here, tennis great Jimmy Connors is describing his tense match with Australian Rod Laver. But it could have been any match for the archetypal “bad boy” of tennis, who during that same match was “dancing around the court and flipping the bird at everyone,” just to get his personal juices flowing.
A star by the time he was 20, Connors was coached first by his tennis-obsessed mom, then by court guru Pancho Segura. Anything but an aristocrat, he came into tennis sideways and with attitude. Handsome, sparky, rude and macho, he gave the gossip columnists plenty to scribble about. In this frank, at times even blunt, memoir, he reveals the facts behind the headlines. He recounts his youthful romance with Chrissie Evert, in which (never mind the sex) the two were constantly, secretly chaperoned by watchful matriarchs. Chrissie’s career, he quickly realized, would always come first; this was never plainer than when she unilaterally decided to terminate a pregnancy late in their relationship.
"One gets the picture, through Connors’s eyes, of a young man who would do anything to win, and for whom tennis was almost too small a proving ground."
Connors talks freely about his antics on the court, making it plain that the attention he got, whether positive or otherwise, spurred him on. Once he belligerently told a gathering of news people, “Don’t count me out,” against the favored Bjorn Borg. “They responded with a huge roar, which carried me through the rest of the tournament, including victory in the finals over Borg.”
One gets the picture, through Connors’s eyes, of a young man who would do anything to win, and for whom tennis was almost too small a proving ground. His amazing record tells the story. In 1974, he was victorious in 95 of 99 matches. He won eight grand slam singles titles and hundreds of tournaments. He refused to join the tennis union, slapping it with lawsuits while working his way through smaller tournies like a reaper through a wheat field. No slave to fashion, he wore the same plain white shorts, washed and dried after each match. He was a brat among elitists, an undisputed champ who enjoyed his wild man image. He opines in enviable understatement that it took fans at Wimbledon a while to warm up to him. The essential outsider, later vying with Nastase and McEnroe for the title of rudest and most outrageous court star of the day, Connors came to his matches to be admired, not to be impressed.
Admitting that he kept playing tennis when he was on the downhill slide professionally, Connors also confesses that he’d love to be back on the court right now. It was a game that incited his anger and fed his pride, took him all over the world at a young and impressionable age, and hooked him up with the love of his life whom he met at the Playboy Club, a place he probably would never have been if it hadn’t been for his sports stardom.
What endures for Connors is the zest for winning, arguably his mother’s greatest legacy: “It’s not what you accomplish --- it’s what you overcome to accomplish it that sets you apart.”
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on May 24, 2013