Jimmy Connors doesn't seem to have changed in old age. (Mike Groll/AP)

Jimmy Connors doesn’t seem to have changed in old age. (Mike Groll/AP)

Jimmy Connors, No. 1 in men’s tennis through much of the mid- and late 1970s, won a total of eight Grand Slam singles titles. Fifteen years ago, he was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame, and he now has a book out: The Outsider: A Memoir. Connors joined Bill Littlefield.

Highlights from Bill’s conversation with Jimmy Connors

BL: Your mother was an enormous influence on your early tennis development, and she coached you and managed your career for some years thereafter. Was she the one who planted the idea that you could become good enough to beat the best?

JC: Yeah, she gave me everything, and she gave me the game and she gave me the attitude at the beginning that you have to go out there and work hard, put everything you have into it. Really, it takes just as much effort to be No.1 as it does to be No. 100. When you put in the time, you put it in and you work hard.

BL: You describe an arresting scene from the Queen’s Club Tournament in London in 1972, when you were nearly penalized, basically, for bouncing the ball too many times before you tossed it up to serve it. Tell us a little bit about why that happened.

JC; Well, it was my first trip to London and going and playing in the Queen’s Club and getting ready to play Wimbledon for my first Wimbledon was very exciting. I kind of got in a routine, I don’t know if it was the stress, or the anxiety, or the excitement or whatever, I could just not stop bouncing the ball. And I didn’t know at the time, I found out since then, that I have what’s called OCD, Obsessive Compulsive [Disorder]. But looking back it seems that with a lot of things that I did or the way that I handled a lot of things: having to go the same route, take the same elevator, walk the same steps, or the same route to a restaurant.   And it was a little bit more than I ever expected.

BL: Just four lines into The Outsider, readers encounter this phrase: “Screw ‘em.” I guess some of your fans will be surprised that they had to wait four lines for that.

JC: (Laughing) I was thinking about using that as the title, but I didn’t think it would go over well. I say things like that because at the beginning it wasn’t all good. I came in at a time when things were changing in tennis. And to come in with my attitude, that’s the way I had to play. But certainly along the way we found something special, the fans and myself. We connected in a way that over the course of my career was an incredible feeling.  They came in and won me more matches than probably I should’ve. I owe them a lot that’s for sure.

BL: You generated a lot of controversy in the discussion of your relationship with Chris Evert when you wrote that she’d had an abortion. I wonder why, after all these years, you felt it was necessary to include that in your book.

JC: It’s a book about my life and things that were emotional, and that was a part of it certainly. The book has 400 pages. There’s a lot more in the book.  But, you know, that was a part of my life and that’s the way it turned out.

Bill thoughts on The Outsider: A Memoir

'The Outsider' by Jimmy ConnorsAs I pointed out to Jimmy Connors when we spoke about his new book, some of his fans are likely to be disappointed that “screw ‘em” shows up four lines into chapter one. They were probably anticipating an earlier appearance of the phrase.

Jimmy Connors was an extremely successful tennis player who often behaved like an ass. He played with exceptional tenacity and won over fans with his flamboyance and his determination to compete at the highest level, even after he’d slowed down. As he says often of himself in The Outsider, he never quit. He also never apologized. He doesn’t do much apologizing in the book, either, except for cheating on his wife and children.

From the beginning of his career, Connors saw himself as the kid from the wrong side of the tracks who would challenge the players favored by the tennis establishment. It was an image that served him well, at least insofar as it drew attention. By his own reckoning, the most vivid display of Connors vs. Tennis came in 1974, when he twice beat Ken Rosewall, the embodiment of the “Old Boys Tennis Club.” By his own admission, Connors “reached perfection” during those matches. He reports that it was a state that “never happened again in the rest of my tennis career,” which must have been disappointing, given that he was still competing in major tournaments in the early 1990s.

The book has come under fire because in the context of discussing his relationship with Chris Evert when they were both young tennis champions, Connors mentions that Evert had an abortion. There is no tennis-related reason for him to have included this detail in The Outsider. It’s a gratuitous bit of cruelty that somebody, perhaps Connors himself, probably thought would help sell books.

Similarly jarring are the potshots Connors takes at Arthur Ashe, with whom he didn’t get along. Ashe was not only a brilliant and accomplished tennis player and the captain of the U.S. Davis Cup Team, he embodied the civil rights struggle in this country and he was a powerful force in the fight against apartheid in South Africa. Beyond all that, he died young of AIDS, which he contracted through a blood transfusion. Whoever edited The Outsider should have told Connors that attacking Ashe was ill-considered at best. Connors comes off as an ignorant, self-absorbed pipsqueak nipping at the ankles of a giant.

Among the other revelations in The Outsider is Connors contention that after he diagnosed himself as a gambling addict, he got cured by attending one Gamblers Anonymous meeting. “That’s all it took,” he writes. “For five years after that, I didn’t make a single bet. Except at golf. I mean, come on – it’s golf. I accept that I’m a gambler and I don’t want to change.”

I don’t think Gamblers Anonymous is going to be using that last bit in their pamphlets.