By Bill Simons
Billie Jean King may have shrieked “I am woman, hear me roar” as she revolutionized women’s sports, but it was James Scott Connors who stomped and shouted, “I’m a man, see me grab tennis by the throat. Up against the ivy, mother——-r, this is my game.”
Tennis would never be the same. The sedate old pastime never knew what hit it. Here was the punky individual who transformed a proper individual sport from whites-only wear to blue collar. Here was the bratty boy who took a club (well, his Wilson T-2000 racket) to a refined country club activity. The vein-popping kid perpetually in a tizzy, his intense mindset always in place: me-against-the-world. But every time you wanted to rush him off to an anger management class, you noticed that delightful (or was it devilish) glint in his eyes. “Hey, guys,” he seemed to be telling us, “Forget your oaky chardonnay. Grab a Bud, have a dog.” Kicking, scratching, cussing, and grabbing his crotch, he dragged a too-quiet, marginalized sport into modernity. Just win baby! Where’s my appearance fee?
Connors knew that ho-hum old tennis had no chance to challenge established sports, so he morphed it into a bawdy, gladiatorial carnival you couldn’t ignore. Glitz and glory became the new story.
A fearless kid—in your face and full of himself—Connors never let you forget he was from the gritty side of a Midwestern town. With a fun-loving, empowering posse by his side, here was a swashbuckling Peter Pan. Cock-a-doodle-do! Jimbo simply refused to grow up. A boy strutting across the world stage, he combined a Rat Pack zest for partying and a babe-a-day sensibility with addictive gambling, globetrotting hijinks, and a showman’s gift for sizzling entertainment. Call him tennis’ answer to Mick Jagger. But don’t ever forget that he had that wicked two-handed backhand—one of the best ever—and a pinball wizard return-of-serve that won him eight Grand Slams, the most matches in the Open era, and kept him at No. 1 for five years, thank you very much.
Okay, Connors’ brand was a singular ferocity. But where did all that fire come from? In his instantly controversial new autobiography, The Outsider, we learn that his “peeps”— his family, mentors, role models, and pals—weren’t exactly pillars of the church choir. For starters, his grandfather was “indicted for malfeasance for ignoring evidence of gambling and election irregularities.” A family friend had gambling connections, as did Connors’ dad, who taught him how to drive a police car when he was eight. But his beloved mom, Gloria, was key. Never has a sports mother been more critical. Tennis’s foremost female coach/manager was both an inspiring and an unsparing guide. Once, after bashing a ball right at her young son, she said, “If your mother can do that to you, imagine what others will do to you.”
In hardscrabble Belleville, Illinois, across the Mississippi from St. Louis, the scrappy Connors survived fistfights and gun battles, rode the rails, and had a near-death experience in a not-so-icy pond. But his mother barely survived a brutal beating by thugs one day as she was hitting with young Jimmy. Blood was splattered, and her teeth went flying, as did any innocence the kid may have still harbored.
Connors asserts that the assault had “a lasting psychological effect … After watching my mom get battered, the need for revenge ran strong in me, and I found I could use that emotion to achieve it. If she could hit balls the very next day after getting beat up, then I could play for one hour or five hours, no matter how bad my body ached … I could always find something to drive me, and most of the time it was those feelings of anger and rage that bubbled up from the past. My mother taught me how to harness those emotions. She called them Tiger Juices.”
Jimbo went from a raw court his mom and grandma, Bertha (the curiously nicknamed “Two-Mom”), built in their backyard, to playing at a local park and an armory where he developed his first-strike offensive style with its flat, lethal shots. A small, left-handed kid, accused of being a mama’s boy, he blasted an odd two-handed backhand and was distant from the elite clique from the “right” side of the tracks. From the beginning, he thrived in his outsider role. A local phenom at 16, he gladly fled his grim, gritty Midwestern world and its imposing Catholic taskmasters for the intoxicating glitz of L.A. with its “veggie burgers and soy smoothies.”
Jimmy’s whiplash-move West proved to be one of the smoothest and most triumphant transitions in the annals of tennis. After all, he went from rubbing elbows with two-bit crime bosses in St. Louis to being taught by a genius tactician, Pancho Segura. On court, the former Ecuadorian ball boy-turned-charismatic-tennis-savant imparted three things: “Confidence, aggression, and strategy.” Off court, Segura took his son Spencer and Connors out and taught them “that having a drink with dinner was no big deal. He showed us how to handle ourselves early on. If you think that’s all he taught us, well, use your imagination,” Connors chuckled. “A 16-year old living on his own in L.A. … I mean, what could possibly go wrong?”
Tinseltown’s celebrity synergy soon kicked into place. The spitfire tennis prospect was appealing to young beauties, aging tycoons, and A-list stars alike. He quickly made fast-lane friends, frequented “the hottest bars and restaurants,” and was drinking with Dean Martin, enjoying a private serenade by Frank Sinatra, and playing backgammon with John Wayne, whose parting advice to him was, “Well, good luck pilgrim.”
Connors’ pilgrimage had to be one of the rowdiest, most X-rated journeys in tennis, but—here’s a revelation—none of his mentors were exactly eager to rein in his salty intensity. His hitting partner Pancho Gonzales advised him, “You never lose respect for a man who is a vicious competitor, and you never hate a man you respect.” Segura would just laugh when Jimmy would turn to linespersons and bark, “Eat me.”
Meanwhile, Jimbo began to eat up the competition. After many a long day at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club, and a year of tennis triumphs (and academic disasters) at UCLA, his journey of a thousand victories began with a single triumph: a stirring 1970 victory at the L.A. Tennis Club over the Aussie icon Roy Emerson. A career was launched. The first of his record 109 tournament titles was won. Word was out. Fans began to flock to his rarely boring battles. Implosions were common. Deals were made, and he soon became pals with the Romanian rogue Ilie Nastase, who would go on to claim to have slept with 2,500 women. Jimbo recalls that he’d watch Nasty “swearing at umpires, throwing his racquet, giving the finger to a line judge, or threatening photographers’ cameras and I would cringe. Then two tournaments later, I’d be doing the same thing.”
Fatefully, Connors also teamed up with the promoter Bill Riordan, a “brash, cigar smoking, maverick … [who had] no fear of … slugging it out like a street fighter.” Riordan provided Jimbo with a confrontational script and launched his own anti-establishment tour featuring “The Belleville Basher” that took the game to beer-belly football outbacks like Shreveport and Little Rock. Tennis as a confrontational theater of the absurd was now the new game.
Riordan, who Jimmy claims was “the ultimate s—- stirrer,” once sent the following telegram to ATP cofounder Donald Dell: “Dear Donald. F—- You. Stronger message to follow.” But what followed for Connors was the most celebrated, yet ill-fated “love game” in the history of tennis romance between, as Jimmy describes it, “America’s sweetheart [Chris Evert] and the most hated guy in tennis.” Young, attractive, driven talents bound for superstardom, the two Catholic kids left the ’72 Wimbledon as a hot item.
Well, not really. The young lovers had much in common and an obvious bond, but with Connors surrounded by women after every match, and Evert often far away, he euphemistically reveals that he “strayed several times.” Still, Connors claims, “Chrissie might not want to admit it, but America’s sweetheart was no angel, either.” Plus, “When you have two people in a relationship who want to be No. 1, it’s tough. The math doesn’t work.” Evert started to get on his nerves and he began feeling like a househusband. “I was doing all the running around,” he writes. “And it began to have a detrimental effect on my game … Her need to be the center of attention at all times became too much.”
Upon The Outsider’s publication, the focus of attention became Connors’ stunning implication that Evert had an abortion, and his assertion that he would have been “perfectly happy to let nature take its course and accept responsibility for what happened.” In the book, he bristles that he didn’t “have any say in the matter,” all of which soon led to their breaking up.
Connors, of course, is famous for blasting boundaries. But crossing this one—the revelation of an intimate confidence—drew an onslaught of “How dare you!” criticisms. Evert herself issued a succinct rebuttal: “In his book, Jimmy Connors has written about a time in our relationship that was very personal and emotionally painful. I am extremely disappointed that he used the book to misrepresent a private matter that took place 40 years ago and made it public without my knowledge. I hope that everyone can understand that I have no further comment.”
Connors once objected when Arthur Ashe would not talk to him directly about a conflict, and he relates an episode where he became upset when his onetime girlfriend Marge Wallace publicized their romance in People magazine without his consent. But amidst the firestorm of criticism, he’s been unrepentant. “I have never apologized for anything,” he told NBC. “I have felt if I do it, it’s done. That’s the way I’ve always gone about it, and I was brought up that way.”
After all, the most compelling and poignant part of The Outsider reveals a secret romance that almost broke up his marriage to Patti McGuire, and how it became an open affair when his young son said, “Mommy, did you know Daddy has a girlfriend? I saw them hugging at Grandma’s.” Then, in order to sustain his marriage, Jimmy finally stopped lying and confessed. “I take a deep breath,” he writes. “I can hardly get the words out, because I start crying. ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’”
Why, some might now ask, can’t “The Outsider” come in from the cold, look Chrissie in the eye, and say the same thing?
According to Mary Carillo, Jimbo was the “only player who could turn a first round match into something like a heavyweight championship.” Time and again, The Outsider reveals Connors’ modus operandi. To him, tennis was “boxing at 90 feet … [and] my job was to make people crazy.” Declaring that “sarcasm is the weapon of champions,” he repeatedly justifies his “spontaneous assholery.” He reasons that he had to be a prick, “because when I was good, I was merely good, but when I was bad, I was great.”
Connors relishes the phrase “revenge is a meal served cold.” But he concedes that his mom—who for years was mean and aloof to his wife, Patti—had trust issues that cost him in the business and tennis worlds and made him wary. Fiercely loyal to his inner circle, he remained insular in his relationships and his world views. Yet few players have so adored the fans, and in turn, been so embraced by them. Connors, his blazing vanity in place, writes shamelessly about “my people, my stage … my stadium, my tournament.” Yet, he was a loner who liked being distant, didn’t hang out in the locker room, “got mad at the kids over nothing … [and] didn’t trust a soul.”
All this ‘tude stirred a mighty blowback. One disgruntled fan scribbled “u f——-g loser” in the dust of his Porsche. Many an arbiter of taste, like Johnny Carson, disliked his entertaining, but surly antics. Even the usually sedate Rod Laver once said Connors thought he was “the best thing since 7-Up.”
Connors notes that for decades enraged rivals “raised their games when they faced me …[They] all wanted to kick my ass. I took it as a compliment.” But what wasn’t a compliment was the outraged soliloquy of a Cockney tennis club owner in London who once chased after him, yelling, “If I catch you out ‘ere again, you short-assed Yankee twat, I’ll shove that girlie racquet of yours so far up that little poof’s arse of yours, you won’t know whether you’re s—-ting or playing mixed f——- g doubles.” Connors also became embroiled in a messy 11-year familial civil war—a litigation over a gambling boat—that devastated his clan. Plus, there was a maze of lawsuits and vendettas with his fellow players, his agents, and lawyers.
Over the years, Connors attracted crazies, death threats, and even a bizarre, uninvited stripper. Over the course of The Outsider’s 401 pages, he offers a string of juicy details:
- He relished being a villain (duh!).
- At times, he slept with his beloved T-2000 racket.
- He helped Nastase put on blackface before a match against Arthur Ashe.
- His highly hyped “Winner Take All” challenges were a deception. The winner didn’t take all.
- His favorite place in London was the Playboy Club.
- His mother was a master at tweaking his game over the phone.
- Reflecting on his infamous “You’re an abortion” comment to a 1991 US Open ump, he concedes that it was “not my proudest moment, but … hell, it could have been worse.”
- In some measure, he blames himself for Vitas Gerulaitis’ death.
- In Paris, he got saucy notes from an aging Marlene Dietrich. Whew!
More substantively, Connors confides that he suffered from a slew of maladies. He wasn’t able to read more than five pages in a schoolbook. He had hay fever, three hip operations and suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, which led him to check every lock in his house ten times in a row. Plus, in a debilitating manner suggestive of Michael Jordan and Pete Rose, he was an “action junkie.” For years, gambling dominated his life. He’d bet on anything from how he would do each year at Wimbledon to the sex of his child. At Caesar’s Palace he lost $60,000 on a single blackjack hand and then $70,000, but later won $1 million there after he beat Martina Navratilova.
What Jimmy doesn’t tell us is why he broke the anti-apartheid boycott to play in South Africa. Or why, early in his career, he was the only pro not to join the ATP. He also doesn’t reveal his deeper feelings about his fierce rival John McEnroe. He says Andre Agassi was “an act, a bluff … [who] pretended to be something he wasn’t,” with no mention of Agassi’s notable on-court achievements, his evolution, and his great work off-court. Similarly, there isn’t one substantive word about Pete Sampras, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, or the Williams sisters—not one.
Rather, Jimmy disses the current generation, saying he doesn’t “have time for … half-assed athletes who coast along with their eyes on nothing but the paycheck” (which is a bit of a giggle, considering Jimmy’s love of hefty paydays). He rails against players who “have an itch” and then are granted the right to disappear into the locker room, sarcastically asking, “Anything else we can do for you? Room service?”
Well, Jimbo, in that vein—if we could be so bold—there is actually one thing we’d like to ask.
Yes, you were “the master of angry tennis,” but seasons change, perspectives shift. So, even at your ripe old age of 60, is it too much to suggest that you—the most snarky of outsiders—dabble in something new: Go within, reflect, or even try a little tenderness?
Then again, nah, forget it. Scrap that idea! After all, there’s only one Jimmy: the combative, rather crazed guy with all those flowing “Tiger Juices.” So why try to change his stripes? After all, he was a force of nature whose essence we saw most clearly when he was his most irascible, unbridled self; when he was Jimbo unchained.