Tennis great Jimmy Connors, 60, helped bring the game from the rarefied air of the country club to the streets where he learned it.
Wielding one of the first two-handed backhands, Connors won eight Grand Slam singles titles: five U.S. Opens, two Wimbledons, and one Australian Open. He was ranked No. 1 tennis player in the world.
Connors told Here & Now’s Robin Young that his rough behavior–yelling at linesmen, arguing with the umpire, throwing tennis racquets–was “my love for the sport.”
“Nobody was out there helping me do anything, arguing for me,” Connors said. “I had to do it on my own. And I was good at it.”
Connors came from a working class background in East St. Louis, Illinois. He was raised by his mother and grandmother, who introduced him to the sport and trained him when he was young. He knew he was different from the other tennis players, and kept an “us against them” mentality.
Reviewers of “The Outsider” had hoped that the memoir would dispel Connors’ reputation during his tennis career as a “jerk,” but it didn’t. Connors said he has no apologies.
“Did I cross the line a few times?” Connors asked. “I probably did. But, you know, not my line.”
Whatever people thought of him, Connors said he got people involved in tennis.
“I liked the fans becoming emotionally involved,” Connors said. “Whether you liked me or you didn’t, you were coming, and you were part of it.”
Though Connors misses tennis as a competitor, he felt that he was in the game at the right time.
“Back in the day we had guys like McEnroe and Năstase and Panatta who had imagination and could play shots that were seemingly impossible,” Connors said. “ I had my day with the right group of guys, and guys that were fun, and had imagination, and had charisma, and had excitement about the tennis world, and about their personal lives.”
Connors says he has no regrets over his long and colorful career.
“I’m sixty. I’ve got the scars inside to prove it,” Connors said. “That’s why I waited until this time to write the book.”
Chapter 1: Out of the Shadows
I’m 29 years old and for the last three years people have been telling me I’m finished, washed up, done.
That doesn’t sit well with me. I’ll say when I’m done and I’m not done yet. I haven’t even reached my peak. Screw ’em.
It’s 1981 and I lost my hold on the number one ranking in the world in the previous year, and even though I’ve claimed 17 titles since then, I haven’t won a major tournament. There’s an element of doubt creeping into my daily training: Do I still belong? Can I still compete at this level? I’m not winning. I’m being pushed onto the back burner. That’s hard to take.
I’m up, I’m down. I think I’m good and then I don’t win. I get up every day and do the right things, but the results aren’t improving. I’m getting to the semifinals, and I’m losing matches I should win. Not good enough. Winning lesser tournaments along the way is fine, but it’s not the majors and that’s what I’m looking for. Anyone else in those years would have been content with my record—but not me and obviously not the media. This has been the most frustrating three years of my career.
“You’re not going to reach your prime until your thirties,” my mom keeps telling me. “My prime? What the hell, Mom? What was the last six or seven years about?”
“You wait,” she says. “You haven’t played your best tennis yet.” My wife, Patti, our two-year-old son, Brett, and I are living in North Miami at Turnberry Isle, Florida. We moved down from Los Angeles for the tennis, but distractions are everywhere. This is a playground for the wealthy. Rich people come here from all over the world for the gambling, discos, restaurants, golf, and—I’m guessing—drugs. In the evenings I can go down to the courts and play tennis against guys who bet $5,000 a set they can beat me if I play them right-handed. Guess what? They can’t. The extra cash is nice, but the fun and laughs is what it’s really all about. But I have only one thing on my mind: reclaiming my position at the top of the tennis world.
I continue to work my ass off every day, practicing two and a half hours in the morning with the Turnberry Club tennis pro, Fred Stolle, a former Grand Slam champion from Australia. He stands in one corner of the court and hits the ball to the opposite corner so I have to run the whole width of the court in order to return the shot. Then he moves to the other corner and I do the same thing from the other side. Then Fred comes up to the net and stands over on the right side so that my forehand passing shots have to go up the line and my backhand has to go crosscourt. Every drill I do is designed to replicate a situation I’m going to face against my toughest opponents. I’ve never hit a shot in a match that I haven’t practiced over and over.
Later in the day I play a couple of sets with my longtime friend David Schneider, a former top South African player, who practices with me whenever I want to fine-tune what I worked on with Fred that morning. Afterward, David and I have a Coke and relax as buddies. It’s nice to let tennis go and be able to talk about other things.
It’s difficult balancing tennis with family life, my friends. When I’m with my family, I feel like I’m slighting the tennis. When I’m practicing, I feel like I’m slighting my family. When I get up at 6:30 a.m., Brett is eating breakfast and watching The Smurfs. I want to spend time with him, but I know I have work to do on the court. When I’m playing tennis, I feel I should be spending time at the pool with Brett and Patti. There are conflicts everywhere I turn. When friends visit, I want to go out and have fun with them, stay out late, but then I am slighting both my tennis and my family. If I go down to the restaurant for breakfast I’ll see 10 people I’m obliged to say hello to and that will hold up my day.
Mom is on the phone. I talk to her at least 10 times a day. This may sound like a lot, but Mom is also my business manager. My schedule is made six months in advance, so not only is she “checking in” as a mother, mother-in-law, and grandmother; she is letting me know about commercial offers, upcoming tournaments, and all the numerous details involved in my career.
If any of the calls lasts more than a few seconds, it’s because she knows I’m having problems. She’s concerned about me. I have to push myself further than I want to, train harder, practice longer. I’m older and things don’t come as easily now. I don’t mind the physical part. It’s getting into the right mental state that I find tough. I haven’t been winning the way I expect to, but I have to find a way to act as if I am, so I won’t talk myself out of it. I don’t want to fall into that trap of saying, “Oh, shit, maybe they’re right. Maybe I am finished.” I have to find my self-confidence, even though I’m not sure where I left it. Things aren’t working out for me, so to get myself through it I have to be twice as arrogant. That’s how I’ll cope. I can’t go out there and just be half-assed; I’ve got to go all the way. I have to be prepared, I have to be in the best shape possible, and my game has to be ready.
Excerpted from the book THE OUTSIDER by Jimmy Connors. Copyright © 2013 by Jimmy Connors. Reprinted with permission of Harper.
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