Within the tennis world, it’s safe to say that Jimmy Connors grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, both literally and figuratively. While Billie Jean King was famous for having a public-courts background, at least she was from southern California, as are inner-city products Serena and Venus Williams. But Connors managed to achieve tennis greatness while learning the game in East St. Louis, Ill., a blue-collar city with real winters, a gritty reputation, and no tradition in the sport.
How he pulled this off to become one of the most ferocious, colorful, and controversial champions in American tennis history is related in tell-all, sometimes confessional fashion in The Outsider: A Memoir, in which the musical strains of “I Did It My Way” practically sing from every page.
Connors thrived on being a maverick, thumbing his nose at the tennis establishment, and being one of the Bad Boys of sport along with his close friend Ilie Nastase. Connors always wore his emotions on his tennis shirtsleeves, and these led to much fist-pumping and to a fair amount of coarse language and boorish court behavior. In retrospect, he says it was pretty crazy that he – the self-professed “most hated guy in tennis” – was once the boyfriend and fiancé of Chris Evert, America’s Sweetheart.
If nothing else, Connors was a determined, a never-say-die fighter who viewed tennis as boxing at 90 feet. His all-out aggressive style ultimately led to 109 men’s singles titles, 10 Grand Slam tournament championships, and selection to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I.
The seed of this success story was planted and nurtured in East St. Louis, mostly by his mother, Gloria, and grandmother, “Two-Mom,” whose death so disturbed Connors that he nearly quit tennis. It was his grandmother who initially fell in love with the sport and passed her love along to Gloria, who became a nationally ranked player. Gloria, in turn, set the standard not only for athleticism but for toughness in Jimmy.
One telling episode on a public court in St. Louis when he was 8 years old indelibly shaped his attitude. Connors, his older brother Johnny, Gloria, and Two-Mom were playing tennis at Jones Park next to two young toughs whose transistor radio was on full blast. After Gloria’s requests to turn down the volume were ignored, Connors’s grandfather, chief of the park police, attempted to intervene but was jumped and knocked to the court.
Gloria attempted to help her dad only to have several teeth punched out. She wasn’t able to talk for a month, but the next day, when her young sons asked her to play tennis, she managed to join them in hitting balls in the backyard, never complaining of discomfort.
Gloria became Jimmy’s hero, and the raw emotion of that violent day would fuel his passions thereafter. “I could always find something to drive me,” he relates in partnership with sportswriter/editor David Hirshey, “and most of the time those feelings of anger and rage bubbled up from the past. My mother taught me how to harness those emotions. She called them Tiger Juices.”
Under his mother’s tutelage, Connors refined his game, which was long on blistering baseline shots that yanked opponents from side to side.
There was no indoor tennis facility in East St. Louis, so he honed his technique drilling on a Knights of Columbus basketball court, then moved onto the polished-wood floor of the local National Guard armory.
Making impressive use of his signature two-handed backhanded, which was also Evert’s stock in trade, he moved up the junior ranks, playing in tournaments all over the country.
What really changed his world and opened up new vistas of opportunity was when, as a 16-year-old, he moved to Los Angeles in 1968 to be coached by Pancho Segura, an old friend of Gloria’s and a top player during the 1950s. The city, he found, was a tennis hotbed, and quickly he was thrust into the company of many avid celebrity players. As a result, he became part of the Hollywood crowd and has enjoyed many show business connections over the years, including friendships with Dino Martin Jr. and Desi Arnez Jr. At the French Open one year he got a call from Marlene Dietrich, made a short-lived singing debut in 1975 on the same TV show with Frank Sinatra and John Denver, and got a tryout as the host of “Wheel of Fortune” in 1998.
Although Connors had a brief college career, he believes he received the equivalent of a PhD in marketing and promotion from Bill Riordan, a promoter who ran an independent pro circuit that Connors joined.
After his own prime playing days were over, Connors used some of that education in starting the Champions Tour senior circuit, talking many of his old friends and rivals, including John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, and Guillermo Vilas, into getting back into playing shape.
In typical Connors fashion, he doesn’t hold anything back in his memoir, hanging out a lot of personal “laundry,” including some old details of his long-ago romance with Evert that greatly disappointed her, and even revealing that, in the “worst mistake” of his life, he once cheated on his wife, Patti, a former Playmate of the Year that he met at Hugh Hefner’s mansion in 1977.
He also divulges that he has long been a gambler found who found himself using gambling more and more to replace the rush he once got from playing high-stakes tennis. His wife finally called him on the carpet when, while eating dinner out, he would spend more time calling sports line for scores than visiting with his family.
He paid a visit to Gamblers Anonymous and has been basically “clean” since, except for what he considers his harmless bets on golf games with his buddies.
In retrospect, what most pleased Connors was the love of his fans – a “new breed” who he says loved his passion and were willing to overlook what offended old-school fans.
What he says he misses most today is the “appreciation and applause from the fans. It was my healthiest addiction.”
Ross Atkin is a Monitor staff writer.