Eye on the ball

The Outsider: My Autobiography, by Jimmy Connors, Bantam RRP £18.99/Harper $28.99, 416 pages

Jimmy Connors is one of those tennis players who stick in the memory: a ham actor who talked to crowds, screamed at umpires and chased down impossible balls until he was 40. He had rivalries with two of tennis’s most intriguing characters, John McEnroe and Björn Borg, and was engaged to Chris Evert. So you start this book eager to find out: what was everyone really like?

But 400 pages later, you still don’t know. In Connors’ analysis, he and McEnroe were angry because of “Irish blood”. He admits to having no idea why Borg walked out of top tennis aged 26. When Connors has an affair and his wife asks him why, he replies: “I don’t know.” McEnroe and Andre Agassi pioneered the emotionally intelligent tennis memoir, but this is not it. That’s a shame, because there is an excellent story hidden in this book: a working-class kid breaking into a posh sport just as it was entering its 1970s rock-star era.

The story begins with Connors’ grandmother, an ordinary girl from the tough town of East St Louis, Illinois. “Two-Mom” (as Connors called her) once told him that “the first moment she hit a tennis ball, she fell in love with the sport”. She passed the love to her daughter, Connors’ mother, who built a court in her backyard. “Mom” coached local kids, including her two sons, while Two-Mom picked up the balls with an apple box. Connors’ father, who managed tollbooths on a local bridge, was a relatively minor figure.

Aged eight, Connors watched as two hooligans at a public court bashed his grandfather’s head into concrete and knocked out his mother’s teeth. Mostly, though, tennis was the happiest part of his childhood. School wasn’t fun: because of uncoordinated eyes, he could barely read.

In 1968, around the time when 15-year-old Connors first won a set from his mother, tennis went fully professional. Suddenly big money was on offer. Connors’ generation of players set out to promote a hitherto minor sport, casting themselves as not just athletes but entertainers.

The Grand Slams still paid relatively little in the 1970s, but winning helped get invitations to lucrative one-off matches staged by promoters in raucous venues such as Caesars Palace, Las Vegas. Sometimes Connors could pocket $500,000 at a promotional match – and sometimes he would gamble it all away.

It was a rock star’s life. Connors and his Romanian buddy Ilie “Nasty” Nastase haunted nightspots from London’s Playboy Club to New York’s Studio 54. Often, he reports, “Nasty would show up at my door in the wee hours with twins on his arm”. No wonder Connors’ engagement to Evert ended – aside from the fact that she didn’t like him eating in the stands while he watched her matches. As he says, two number ones in a relationship doesn’t work. Connors met his future wife Patti at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion, where she was being crowned “Playmate of the Year 1977”. They are still together.

Connors stayed at the top for nearly 20 years, winning eight Grand Slam singles titles and struggling with obsessive compulsive disorder. Tennis perfectly suited his mental limitations: “I’m not someone who can juggle a lot of conflicting thoughts. That’s why tennis works for me – when the ball is in play, that’s all I need to think about.” Even when he received a credible death threat at the US Open, he kept his focus and won the title.

If only he had more to say about it all. His friendships seem to be based on the simplest male bonding. He travelled the world but didn’t see it: Ceaucescu’s Romania provided a “nice vacation”, Italians have “fiery temperament”, and Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall was “an incredible place”. He dismisses today’s players as spoiled robots whose miracle rackets save them from having to learn basic technique.

At times you wonder whether anyone can truly be this two-dimensional. Connors’ insistence that he is telling his story “the way it is” suggests that he is.

Simon Kuper is an FT columnist

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