BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Outsider’

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THE OUTSIDER: A MEMOIR
By Jimmy Connors
HarperCollins, $28.99, 401 pages

In his classic tennis book “Levels of the Game,” John McPhee gave us the late, great Arthur Ashe competing against Clark Graebner. In “The Outsider,” tennis legend Jimmy Connors gives us himself against the world. The result, in its own very different way, is equally enjoyable. In case you were wondering, Mr. Connors wins.

When James Scott Connors burst upon the horizon, tennis was still far more closely aligned to the country club than to city parks. Whites, as in clothing, were de rigueur, fans were polite and prize money was small. But the new era of open tennis — amateurs and pros could compete in the same tournaments — was upon us, with Jimmy Connors leading the way. The world of tennis has never been the same.

Born in blue-collar East St. Louis, Ill., in 1952, Mr. Connors had as his first coach and lifelong mentor his mother, Gloria, who was a fine player herself. She played in the U.S. national championships at Forest Hills, N.Y., in 1942 and 1943. She never cut him any slack, regularly trouncing him in backyard matches. When she’d lure him to the net and then slam the ball past him, she’d say, “See, Jimmy, even your own mother will do that to you.”

Recognizing her son’s early potential, when Jimmy was 16, Gloria moved them to Los Angeles and talked tennis great Pancho Segura into becoming his coach. Young Mr. Connors was soon on his way. No student — Mr. Connors writes that he was dyslexic and suffered from both attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and obsessive-compulsive syndrome — he attended UCLA just long enough to win the NCAA singles crown before turning professional in 1972. Two years later, he was No. 1 in the world, and he held that rank for 160 weeks, a record that lasted until Roger Federer broke it in 2007.

By the time he retired in 1991, Mr. Connors had won so many championships it would take a small museum to house all his trophies. Among many other grand slam victories, he won the U.S. Open title five times, the French Open four, Wimbledon twice and the Australian Open once. He won $8.6 million in prize money — and who knows how much more in exhibitions and “friendly wagers.” Unlike many celebrated sports figures, Mr. Connors has had a long and happy marriage, to onetime Playboy Playmate of the Year Patti McGuire, with whom he has a son and a daughter.

Throughout his career, Mr. Connors has been famously confrontational, in your face and what-you-see-is-what-you-get, and “The Outsider” provides chapter and verse for each of those traits. Readers who like their heroes to be modest and self-effacing need not apply themselves to this text.

Throughout the book, Mr. Connors is honest to the point of bluntness, which not all readers will enjoy. For example, some may quibble about how candidly (but, in my opinion, also rather gallantly) he treats his early romance with Chris (“America’s Sweetheart”) Evert, but Mr. Connors has never been known for holding back. Others may feel he spends too much time on his family — especially his mother, whom he idolizes, though also candidly — but well-drawn portraits are rare in books by sports figures, and this book is filled with them. (That may be the work of noted sportswriter and book editor David Hirshey or Casey DeFranco. Mr. Connors calls the first his “brilliant editor,” and the second his “co-conspirator,” but doesn’t come right out and credit either one as his writer.)

Regardless of who actually put pen to paper, “The Outsider” is a good read, even if it often brings to mind Shakespeare’s line about protesting too much, and if the first-person pronoun flies around as frequently as a tennis ball during a Harold Solomon baseline rally.

Interesting bits abound, such as Mr. Connors explaining how he combated the pollen from the grass at Wimbledon by breathing through his nose, a trick taught by his grandfather, who had been a boxer. Or the amount and degree of his gambling habit. He once won the $60,000 Alan King Classic only to endorse the check over to Caesar’s Palace. Or the $70,000 in winnings he dumped out of his racquet cover and bet on a single number (he lost).

My personal favorite is Mr. Connors‘ explanation of why he so greatly prefers tennis over golf: “I like the game, but let’s face it. It’s not tennis. It can be tiring, sure, but it’s not the kind of exercise I’m looking for. I want to work up a sweat. Golf is more of a mental pursuit, an opportunity to learn how to concentrate better while trying to figure out the technical side. Waiting 10 minutes between shots? Well, you know enough about me to understand that 10 minutes alone in my head can be disastrous.”

Mr. Connors and his crew — Ilie Nastase, Vitas Gerulaitis, Roscoe Tanner and, a bit later, the great champions Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe — brought color and flash and fun to tennis, characteristics the current crop of champions seems to lack. As he writes near the end, “We moved tennis from those gated country clubs to the streets. We sparked the revolution that opened the doors to the people who loved sports, drank beer, ate hot dogs, and wanted to be part of the spectacle — to see it, smell it, and, most important, let their feelings be known loud and clear … I appealed to a different crowd.” Amen to that, Jimmy Connors. And thanks for the memories.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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