Book review: The Outsider: A Memoir by Jimmy Connors

‘MY TIMING could not have been better,” Jimmy Connors declares in The Outsider, referring to his becoming the world’s top-ranked tennis player in the mid-70s, just as the sport became big business.

The Outsider: A Memoir

Jimmy Connors

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Bantam Press, £18.99

He could also have been describing his game, which deployed a steel-frame racket and a relentless “take the ball on the rise” style to win a record 109 singles titles, including eight Grand Slam championships, making him one of the important tennis players of the second half of the 20th century.

Yet he was also a jerk, and there is little in this book to dispel his reputation as a ­narcissistic, selfish loner. He refused to join the players’ ­association so he could play on lucrative competing tours. He hardly ever competed in Davis Cup matches. He cheated on his fiancée, the superstar Chris Evert, whom he never married, and his wife, a former Playboy Playmate of the Year, Patti McGuire.

The women to whom he remained faithful were his coaches – his mother, Gloria Connors, and his grandmother, whom he calls Two-Mom. A former local champion, Connors’ mother taught tennis; her star pupil, the one with the staccato footwork and compact strokes, happened to be her son. She pushed him hard, harnessing his emotions by telling him to “get those ­tiger juices flowing”.

Connors often channelled those tiger juices into a repertory of on-court antics that ruffled the tennis establishment’s starched collars – gesturing obscenely at line judges, grabbing his crotch after a point, positioning his racket handle between his legs just so. The Outsider is, in many ways, like Connors himself: ­irreverent and amusing, but not very likeable.

He fondly recalls much of his antisocial behaviour, like his first encounter with John McEnroe in the locker room before their 1977 Wimbledon semi-final. “I wasn’t going to give this up-and-comer an inch,” Connors writes of the 18-year-old McEnroe.

“If I could rattle him, I would.” McEnroe, who would assume Connors’ bad-boy mantle, came up to introduce himself. “I grabbed my bag and rackets and walked past him – no smile, no hello, no handshake, no acknowledgement of his existence,” Connors boasts.

One shortcoming with the book is not Connors’ fault. ­Andre Agassi’s 2009 autobiography, Open, was groundbreaking in its raw, complex, dark examination of a major athlete’s life. The Outsider tries to dig deep – Connors reveals lifelong struggles with gambling and obsessive-compulsive disorder – but lacks the insight and nuance of Agassi’s book. If Connors changed the game of tennis, then Agassi changed the game of tennis memoirs.

Agassi portrayed Connors harshly in his book and Connors hits back. He lambasts Agassi for confessing to mixed emotions about the game and feigning enjoyment on the court. “Tennis gave Agassi everything – his fame, his money, his reputation, even his current wife – and he went on to knock it in his book,” Connors says. “For me, tennis was all about standing out there and being honest, not pretending to be something that I wasn’t.”

Despite its flaws, tennis ­fanatics will probably devour The Outsider. Because of Connors’ longevity – he was ranked in the top 10 for 16 straight years – a range of champions make cameo appearances.

Connors never officially ­retired. “I wasn’t interested in some grand, dumb-ass farewell tour, even though, if I think about it now, it would have been worth a small fortune,” he writes. “I’d entertained enough crowds and played some great tennis over the years. If people remember me for that, I’m good.” «