Commentary

Jimmy Connors won't go quietly

Updated: May 13, 2013, 5:23 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- He was tennis's most scatalogical champ and King of the Five-Set Comeback. He's known for boasting he was loved for it all because "I spilled my blood and guts out there." And there's no disputing that. The real tension in the question "Who is Jimmy Connors?" -- the first vulgarian to crash tennis's gates back in the 1970s, or just another compulsively driven sports great who believed all's fair in competition? -- should be settled with the publication of his autobiography, at long last, at the age of 60. Even its title, "The Outsider," gives away the answer.

Connors is exactly who we thought he was.

His book is a more detailed explanation. But he is not seeking exoneration.

So pay no attention to the window dressing on this slight man who's been making the talk-show and interview rounds the past week in an understated suit jacket, crisp white shirt and Clark Kent glasses. It only confuses the issue. Connors' look and carriage off the court never matched his grenade-tossing tennis antics on it, or his bad-boy view on things like a 21-day suspension he writes about receiving once for crude behavior: "You mean you can't grab your nuts? I didn't get that memo."

Still surprising

Off the court, Connors comes across as soft-spoken, disarmingly reasonable and engagingly honest -- playfully charming, even. The F-bombs are safely locked away in their silos. Yet it says something that he has spent a good part of his publicity tour so far having to defend himself against a two-paragraph section of his 386-page book in which he reveals for the very first time, after years of talking only obliquely about his two-year relationship with Chris Evert, that Evert terminated a pregnancy in 1974, when they were engaged. She was just 19 and still being called Chris America. He was just turning 22. They called off their November wedding a few weeks later.

What makes Connors' disclosure even more startling was Evert has, for years, spoken about Connors in only the fondest terms, often calling him "the best first love a girl could have had" -- and yet Connors didn't give Evert so much as a courtesy warning that the news would be in the book, an oversight the "extremely disappointed" Evert highlighted in this brief statement she released once newspapers and online outlets pounced on the story.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Connors
Getty ImagesJimmy Connors was known for his tenacity and endurance.

Now Connors is facing the music, something he's used to doing. Just this morning before sitting down for this midafternoon interview in the lounge at New York's Peninsula Hotel, he'd been asked about his Evert disclosure on the "Today" show and "Access Hollywood." He'd been approached on the street by a TMZ camera crew for an interview, and "attacked" (in the word of one of his handlers) by Kathie Lee Gifford on the midmorning edition of "Today."

Connors claims he didn't anticipate the backlash coming -- "No, I didn't, I didn't. I put it in there as an issue and it was [written] very low-key and subdued, and I moved on" -- but once the reaction did come, he adds, "I picked up the phone and called Chris."

Afterward? "Right."

That must have been a difficult conversation.

"Well, I think I'll keep that private," Connors says.

Can he see why he's been accused of a betrayal?

"Well ... But it's a book about my life, you know -- things that have happened and affected me in my life," he says, and his tone of voice is not defensive at all; he's laying out his position calmly, from his point of view. "It was not meant to be put in there for any other reason than it did have an effect on my life. I was able to step back and look at it and the emotions and pain it caused us. ... We had something special for a couple years. Looking back, that was a very important time in my life. But I didn't ask anybody about what I was going to put in the book."

Reading Connors' book or having a conversation with him is a reminder that you can often tell a lot about people by what they choose to volunteer about themselves, not just what they're obliged to tell you.

He says again and again in his book that he has few regrets. And we should take him at his word. Because even now, with the benefit of decades of hindsight, it's telling that there are few conciliatory codas tacked onto his stories. As a memoirist, he's still an anarchist. He still chooses to end most skirmishes with other players and fans the same way he did four decades ago: "F--- you. ... Screw 'em ... If you don't like it? I don't care ... " he writes.

But would he change much? "Hell, no," he writes.

A touchstone he mentions several times in the book is how the success he reaped and heights he hit were "not bad for a working-class kid from East St. Louis."

Getting the notoriously private Connors to finally consent to sit for his autobiography was one of the remaining great "gets" in the sports book business. He admits even once he was into the process with co-author Casey DeFranco, a longtime friend, "I wanted to get up and run out and say, 'I gotta get away, I gotta get out of doing this.'"

But once persuaded to sit still, he doesn't pull punches in his book, or sitting here now in the lounge of this Manhattan hotel, two decades removed from leaving the men's tour at age 40 without any official retirement announcement, let alone what he calls the ritual "dumb-ass farewell tour." Why? "Because I'm not a dumb ass -- that's my answer to that," he jokes. And it's hard not to laugh.

Connors' straightforwardness is bracing at times. He touches on many well-known bookmarks and skirmishes in his career: his breakthrough 1974 season of three Slam victories and 95 wins in 99 matches, which still ranks as one of the three or four greatest men's tennis years ever; the time he warned Bjorn Borg that he'd "follow him to the end of the earth"; when he won the 1974 U.S. Open and famously growled "Get me Laver" on the advice of his promoter Bill Riordan, the final spark that set up their lucrative winner-take-all event in Las Vegas the following year.

He preens a bit, gets off a lot of humorous lines and goes beyond his playing career to discuss personal foibles like "the two R's" that drove him, "rage and revenge."

He reveals that he suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), but it wasn't discovered until his 20s. He had a serious gambling problem that was so bad, he confesses he woke up each day thinking of nothing else and once bet $1 million prop bet that he would beat Martina Navratilova in their Battle of the Sexes match in Vegas in straight sets, losing no more than eight games -- then quickly fell into a 1-3 hole before rallying to barely win the bet by losing only seven games.

Asked if he felt like vomiting after dodging such a disaster, Connors says: "No. But that's the feeling I was looking for. I was trying to find that daily thrill especially after I quit playing, even if it was just three seconds. And then it doesn't always happen. So then you just chase more. ... Whether it was watching a basketball game or a football game, or laying cards or rolling dice or whatever."

He talks tennis too. His Rat Pack perambulations with Romanian pal Ilie "Nasty" Nastase and Vitas Gerulaitis. His stormy pasts with the now-sainted Arthur Ashe, Andre Agassi (whom Connors once suggested he may have fathered illegitimately because "I used to spend a lot of time in Vegas") and John McEnroe, a relationship which to this day remains strained.

"We had a real, real, real rivalry," Connors says now. "Anything and everything that you saw with us, you know -- there was no putting your arms around me [at the net] and saying 'Next time' and picking me up at the airport. If that were the case, I'd still be walking in from JFK. And" -- here Connors laughs -- "I like that.

"When I played Laver," Connors continues, "he was what tennis was. And I was the young guy coming up and I wanted that ... But Mac, he was like my mirror image. It was like playing myself ... He was left-handed, he was Irish, he had a bad attitude. I had all that. But at first I had what he wanted. And I saw that [he was a threat] from the very first time I played him at Wimbledon. I said, you know, 'Oh. Oh Christ.'"

Connors has always said when he stepped on the court he became a different person. But when asked if the reflective process of writing the book changed that opinion, he says no.

"I'm a shy, laid-back kid -- still today," he insists.

But that's not quite right either. "Shy and laid back" may indeed be his natural off-court set point. But it's not all Connors is.

Origins

Connors had many influences early in his life, most of them colorful. And they still echo in him.

He describes a difficult upbringing in hardscrabble East St. Louis. He was introduced to tennis by his mother, Gloria, an accomplished player in her own right who cleared the space for a backyard court while Jimmy was in utero, and by his maternal grandmother, Bertha Thompson, who was such a constant presence in his life she was nicknamed Two-Mom.

His unforgiving fitness training was handled at first by his grandfather Al Thompson, a former Golden Gloves middleweight. His handler in his heyday (along with his hard-bargaining mother) was Riordan, a Barnum-like former boxing promoter who worked out of a dress shop he owned in Salisbury, Md.

Together, Connors, his mother and Two-Mom were profiled in one of the most memorable Sports Illustrated stories ever, Frank Deford's 1978 classic "Raised by Women to Conquer Men."

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Adrian Murrell/Getty ImagesJimmy Connors clowns and jokes for the crowd in a bowler hat during a doubles match with partner Ilie Nastase in 1976 at Wimbledon.

It contains a vivid passage that's been used to psychoanalyze Connors' career ever since. Gloria -- describing to Deford how she and Two-Mom built Jimmy's Us-Against-the-World attitude -- says: "We taught him to be a tiger. 'Get those tiger juices flowing!' I would call out, and I told him to try and knock the ball down my throat, and he learned to do this because he found out that if I had the chance, I would knock it down his. Yes, sir. And then I would say, 'You see, Jimbo, you see what even your own mother will do to you on a tennis court?'"

Fans who never saw Connors play will not appreciate how literally he took that combativeness to heart.

Connors' stamina and ability to roar back from impossible-looking deficits were legendary -- and never celebrated more than during his 1991 run to the U.S. Open semis at age 39. ("The best 11 days of my life," he now calls it.) His two-fisted backhand? That was merely one of the greatest shots in tennis, ever. As a young man he stood only 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds soaking wet, but he threw himself so violently into each roundhouse swing he took, he's undergone three hip replacements since he retired. Tennis had never seen the almost orgasmic celebrations or obscenities he sometimes launched into either.

He was the first big star that men's tennis had as it moved into the so-called Open era, when players were no longer paid under the table. It was a time of tumult. Various factions were all fighting for a piece of the action back then, and an alphabet soup list of organizations sprang up like the ITF, ATP player's union and IPA, which Riordan started as a vehicle for Connors. And at one point, Connors seemed to be suing all of them except World Team Tennis.

Much was also made of his mother's lingering presence and her giving him "a woman's game." He was frequently disparaged as a mama's boy, which only threw more kindling on his rage.

One rare concession that Connors will make now is that conflict actually wore on him sometimes as well. Like everyone else, he did occasionally wonder what the hell he was doing.

And as he sits here in the Peninsula hotel, he has arrived at a crystal clear understanding about some of it.

He suggests the most galvanizing incident in his life is another story he reveals for the first time in the book: At age 8, he and his brother, Johnny, felt "helpless" to save their mother from a brutal beating at a public tennis court after she'd asked some local hooligans to turn down their radio while they were playing. Gloria Connors was badly hurt and lost several teeth. But she went right back to the same court with them the next day.

"I don't tell that story lightly, because nobody ever knew that," Connors says. "I tell that story because of the feeling that I had ... it gave me something, you know? I grew up and it was something that always stuck in my mind.

"For me to play, I needed something always to go back to to get me to play five hours. To get me into the fifth set. To feel no pain. And some of things around that [what happened to his mom] were something that was always there in reserve, to get me to go further."

But toward what end?

"Me playing tennis where I was from was a mistake," he says. "East St. Louis was where I was born and raised, but I always had something in the back of my mind to get out of there, to go somewhere, to do something else. Whatever it took."

And so that sometimes obnoxious guy on the tennis court, the once-helpless-feeling boy who grew into a man who mowed down all comers for a great long while, hanging onto the No. 1 ranking four straight years in the mid-70s, collecting 10 career singles and doubles Grand Slams and never falling out of the top 10 for a record 16 straight years? Connors now says almost sheepishly, "In some ways, I liked [the on-court] me better."

It allowed him to show "who's powerless now?"

He is not great at apologizing for excesses, even today. But he will at least allow that not all of it had to happen.

He insists that in writing his book, "I'm not looking to have a last laugh." There were laughs, to be sure. "But a lot of tears too," he says, his face now serious.

The show

Truth be told, he adds, there was no grand design to carve out the loud career he did. Not at first. He wasn't initially intending to be the first potty-mouth lightning rod in tennis, or prepared to be mocked as the first male champion who was created and managed by his mother. He says he wasn't ready to wage fights against tennis's tsk-tsking old guard while also serving as the fulcrum of the new, barnstorming rival circuit Riordan built around him and extroverted wingmen like Nastase and Gerulaitis. He squirmed at all that tub-thumping of Riordan's that he was the next great American champion before it was quite true.

"But I was the sell," Connors says.

And ready or not, a funny thing happened.

"I ended up being tossed into the arena, and I liked it," he says. "It drove me."

Still, when asked now if it's accurate to say that if he didn't have a grudge, he'd invent one to push himself, Connors quickly says no, no.

"I didn't have to invent anything -- I had plenty back in the dark holes," he says. "There was plenty back there in the past that I was able to reach back on and grab.

"I knew what I had been through with my mother, and what [pain while fitness training] my grandfather put me through ... And I wasn't afraid to go back to the demons. I wasn't.

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Tony Duffy/ALLSPORT/Getty ImagesJimmy Connors returns a ball in 1977 at Wimbledon.

"But you know, they're ugly bastards sometimes. It's hard. It's hard, you know?"

Here Connors laughs a little dolefully.

It's not entirely clear exactly what demons Connors is referring to right now. Unfocused rage and revenge or excesses? A son's specific pain of reliving his mother's beating in the park, or her sexist treatment later when she was acting on his behalf, and he could and did defend her to the last against attacks, pulling her in tight to the day she died in 2007?

Does he mean the personal and professional relationships he violated or fractured -- or the stunning loyalty of those who stood by him nonetheless like Patti, his wife of 33 years, whom he admits cheating on, or pal Spencer Segura, who was with him last week in New York? ("It takes you by surprise that I can say that, right? That I have some buddies," Connors jokes.) Does he mean the post-retirement years when he came to look at his six dogs as his "shrinks" and he realized he really didn't have to put his family through what he did?

"What a [jerk]," he berates himself in the book.

It was supposed to be just tennis he was playing. Then just a dollop of "entertainment" on the side -- a guy playing a villian's role that audiences flocked to see.

"Guys have got to know most of it is not personal. It's NOT," he insists now. "And it wasn't anything planned. My attitude was what it was. And it wasn't going to change. They could have told me in a year, 'Look, we don't want your kind.' Which was possible."

But the worse you behaved, the more people paid attention, he is told.

"Right -- that was my next line," Connors nods. "And the light bulb went off. They came for the tennis, but they also wanted more. Nastase was already out there, and couple guys were coming. And people wanted to have more of that." So if you're looking for how Connors justifies everything that came before or since, that's the answer. That Faustian bargain is it. It allows him to look at folks who lap up what he does before saying he's gone too far as hypocrites or weaker than him. Tiger juices flowing now. Us against the world. Not bad for a kid from East St. Louis.

"It was OK with me if someone called me a mama's boy -- I got even in some way," he says. "I always felt, 'So it's OK if you're a daddy's boy, right?' That's always OK. But you know what? My mom gave me what every dad was trying to give his kid -- and more. ... It's OK for Wayne Gretzky's dad to give him a hockey stick, and it was OK for Joe Montana's dad to give him a football, but it wasn't OK for Gloria Connors to give her son a tennis racket? I mean, there's something not right about that. ... She gave me a gift."

And so you developed a contempt for being told it wasn't "normal"?

"What's 'normal'?" Connors almost trills. Speaking specifically now of the bad-boy trend he helped start, he says: "Did we walk the line? Yes. Did we fall off the line? Most definitely. But whose line, you know? Who drew that line?

"If it was my line, I never fell off of my line. I might have fallen off yours. But like it or not, like me or not, like Nastase or not, like Vitas or not -- whatever -- you had a reason to come, to root for us or against us. It didn't matter. You were there."

It's an old formula, that. Give 'em what they want. Give 'em their money's worth. But it's one Connors has perfected. And he does not abandon it. now.

It worked for him when he was the hell-raiser bringing tennis from backwater to the big time, and as he was writing a book four decades later. It requires inviting the demons back in. Again. But hell yeah and so what? He's used to it.

He says, "It's amazing how far a tennis racket can take you."

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