Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Towpath review of Jimmy Connors' "The Outsider: A Memoir"

Barbara Youel | Towpath Member Contributor

The Outsider: A Memoir 
by Jimmy Connors (HarperCollins, 2013)
Book rating: 

A reader may wonder if behind Connors’ bad-boy outsider persona is the underpinning for the tiresome and sometimes gratuitous expletives that frequent these pages. Having said that however, how can you not like a guy who loves his family, fierce competition and yes, loves, really loves dogs? It is no secret that Jimmy Connors came to tennis on the public courts of East St. Louis, IL in the early sixties, a place and time which apparently shaped his dogged (pun intended) determination to beat the odds of breaking into the professional tennis world as an “outsider.”
Connors at the 1978 ABN Tennis Tournament holding his
Wilson T2000 steel racket.

The Outsider Image is Not New
Ancient Greek myths and other world literature give us numerous examples of the plight of an outsider, one who is excluded or detached from a particular group or community. This sense of exclusion (whether real or perceived) can have mixed effects on not only the outsider, but on those around him (yes, males tend to dominate this archetype). Think of Ponyboy in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967) or Jay Gatsby from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby (1925) to name just two. This outsider attitude seems to be a life-long impetus for Connors, as he endures tragedies and disappointments, yet prevails in the end.

Mom and Two-Mom
Much of his ability to prevail both on and off the court he credits to his mother Gloria, arguably the driving force behind Jimmy’s game, and his grandmother, called Two-Mom.  

“All my life she taught me - made me a world champion,” Connors said upon his mother’s death at age 82 in 2007. (

Gloria, a tennis pro in her own right, not only played the game, but coached Hollywood celebrities Mickey Rooney and Errol Flynn. She also taught regular youngsters from the East St. Louis neighborhoods. Pictures of Mom, Two-Mom, other family members, coaches, competitors, and yes, those dogs Connors’ calls his “shrinks,” considerably enhance this read.

Gambling, OCD, and other Dark Days
Connors spares no details and relates (amazingly so) conversations held years ago surrounding his compulsive gambling, his obsessive compulsive disorder (such as checking multiple times if the house is locked for the night) and his admitted womanizing while married to former Playboy Playmate Patti McGuire and the near-loss of his family. To mixed reviews, Connors seems to be forthright about both the happy and sad times with Chrissie Evert “America’s Sweetheart.” Their brief engagement in 1974 was called off, and details too personal and private should simply stay that way and are therefore my choice not to fuel a painful matter.

“The Bad Boys of Tennis” et al.
What this memoir does fuel are his memories of battles with the likes of John McEnroe, Arthur Ashe, Ivan Lendl, and Rod Laver, tennis giants all, plus some entertaining experiences with “irrepressible co-conspirators” Ilie Nastase and Vitas Gerulaitis. Connors relives many of these classic encounters with characteristic passion and humor. Readers who enjoy the details of these famous matches will not be disappointed. The reader feels the young Connors’ utter drive to entertain and excel on court, yet sympathizes with his current longings to be part of the game in some way. What’s a man in his sixties to do?

Words to Play By
Who would argue with Connors, a former Number One in the world, winner of 10 Grand Slams and 109 men’s singles titles? These are words we have heard before, but reinforced by one of tennis’ best. Sound familiar?
1. The two key ingredients to tennis are preparation and footwork.
2. “Confidence, aggression, strategy.” (from Mom and Pancho Segura)
3. “Always expect the ball to come back, Jimmy,” said his mom.
4. Practice like you play, play like you practice.
5. Keep your eyes on the ball.

Another early influence, Pop (Jimmy’s grandfather) conveyed an important lesson: 

“…no matter how prepared you are, there will always be something going on, either on or off the court, that will take your mind off your game. How I deal with that is down to me.” 

These were surely words to live by as Connors intersperses the drama of his matches with the drama of his off-court life.


My sense is that most of us have been on the “outside” of something from time to time. We may have experienced real or perceived feelings of not quite belonging to a group whose recognition and approval we dearly craved. This may be an unintended consequence of Connors’ memoir, to look inside ourselves for our own “outsider” and how we manage those shifting boundaries. I’m not sure how much of an outsider Connors really is, but for this memoir, the metaphor works.

The Outsider: A Memoir is available at local bookstores, public libraries, and online.

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