'You can get away with anything if you win': Jimmy Connors makes few apologies in new book

NEW YORK TIMESMay 4, 2013 

Jimmy Connors showed signs of obsessive compulsive disorder and ocular motor sensory deficit as a child, long before he realized they were serious problems. He tried Gamblers Anonymous to curb a "fix" that still itches and took his grandmother's advice as a mantra: "Keep a little mystery about yourself in life."

Connors has finally decided to let the real world into the sanctuary he created on and off a tennis court. "The Outsider," an autobiography to be published by HarperCollins on May 14, is an engrossing five-setter on clay, with intense exchanges and no tiebreakers.

Connors, 60, makes few apologies for his aggressive style and behavior, although he does acknowledge several indiscretions, personal and professional. Not surprising, he also lines up friends and foes -- some based on loyalties and others on perceptions that only someone with his metro-east background and take it-or-leave-it mentality could justify.

"The way I played tennis was very frequently selfish," he writes.

He also borrows liberally from his overly protective mother, Gloria Connors, and a loving grandmother, Brenda Thompson, whom he called Two-Mom and who repeatedly told him, "You can get away with anything if you win." These strong, determined women, along with his wife, Patti, emerge as the foundations in Connors' often turbulent life. How many wives would stand for their husbands' squandering $70,000 in tennis winnings on one hand of blackjack?

The Connors voice in this 401-page account can be brash and defiant, far different in tone and temperament from most traditional sports memoirs. But Connors is not Andre Agassi trying to chronicle a transformation; Connors even rifles a few crisp crosscourt passing shots at Agassi, whose 2009 confessional was No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list. Agassi, Connors writes, "was never my kind of guy," labeling his substance-over-style turnabout "nothing but an act."

Connors thrilled fans during his Hall of Fame career, which included eight Grand Slam singles crowns, 109 tournament titles, 160 consecutive weeks as the No. 1 men's player in the world and countless comebacks against players like Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, and Mikael Pernfors and Aaron Krickstein. Those fans will feel rewarded with his I-did-it-my-way theme. The unconditional love for his two children and six dogs (whom he calls "in-house shrinks"), and the ability to rebound from assorted injuries and family travails, may even surprise and touch readers.

Cynics who tired of his vocal and physical confrontations, crotch grabs, anti-establishment rationale ("I guess I can't do things like everyone else," he writes) and profane indifference will simply say, "I told you so."

That Connors now feels secure enough to tell us why he bounced balls so obsessively at the service line, repeatedly locked and unlocks doors and could not manage his mother's difficulties accepting his wife until well into their marriage is worthy background. Whether he would have ventured down such a personal memory lane if his mother were alive is a more sensitive question.

Tennis prodigies often share the benefits and burdens of parents who push and prod them, sometimes to excess, in pursuit of greatness. Gloria Connors, who died in 2007, went beyond teaching her son the importance of preparation and footwork. She was involved in every aspect of his life, "and she paid the price for treading into that traditionally male-dominated territory by having some pretty aggressive criticism thrown at her by the tennis establishment and media," Connors writes.

Acknowledging that he would sometimes yell at his mother to "get out of my life" for interfering in his "extracurricular" affairs, Connors still defends her, a sentimental thread that enlivens his mundane recitations of tournaments, his lawsuits and his recurring rejection of other authority figures.

Professional tennis today bears little resemblance to what was essentially a Wild West show during the Connors years. The emergence of the Open era in 1968 united amateurs and pros and brought fresh money, lively personalities, cultural diversity and a lawlessness that left the governing bodies playing catch-up to rein in under-the-table payments, drugs, gambling and outrageous court conduct. Connors and his band of brothers (Ilie Nastase, Vitas Gerulaitis, Guillermo Vilas, Yannick Noah, McEnroe and Borg, among others) delivered unscripted excitement and color to a staid, all-white upper-class domain.

Connors captures this public fascination, recalling a one-minute phone conversation with actress Marlene Dietrich, who spotted him at her hotel in Paris and then had a framed photograph with a racy six-word inscription delivered to his room.

Nastase, for all his much-publicized histrionics on the court, emerges as one of Connors' closest confidants. Connors devotes a chapter to Gerulaitis and even blames himself for letting Gerulaitis leave a senior tour event in Seattle in 1994 for a charity appearance on Long Island, where he died of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning at 40.

He also recalls the ballyhooed 1974 Wimbledon "love double," in which he and his fiancee at the time, Chris Evert, won the singles titles. He also discusses issues in the relationship that may have contributed to their breakup.

"Can two No. 1s exist in the same family?" Connors writes. "It wouldn't have worked for us, and it was better that we figured it out early on."

Is Connors among the top 10 men's players in tennis history? With the quality and longevity of his game, consistently strong performances in Grand Slam events, a record number of singles titles and an .817 winning percentage in the Open era, he belongs in the conversation.

Like the individualists Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra, Pete Rose and Chuck Berry, Connors was authentic. The book reflects that swagger, as do the lyrics to a classic Berry tune, "Johnny B. Goode."

His mother told him, "Someday you will be a man,

And you will be the leader of a big old band."

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