Tennis great Jimmy Connors reveals the source of the fire that burned within during his Hall of Fame career.
Within the tennis world, it’s safe to say that Jimmy Connors grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, both literally and figuratively. While Billie Jean King was famous for having a public-courts background, at least she was from southern California, as are inner-city products Serena and Venus Williams. But Connors managed to achieve tennis greatness while learning the game in East St. Louis, Ill., a blue-collar city with real winters, a gritty reputation, and no tradition in the sport.
How he pulled this off to become one of the most ferocious, colorful, and controversial champions in American tennis history is related in tell-all, sometimes confessional fashion in The Outsider: A Memoir, in which the musical strains of “I Did It My Way” practically sing from every page.
Connors thrived on being a maverick, thumbing his nose at the tennis establishment, and being one of the Bad Boys of sport along with his close friend Ilie Nastase. Connors always wore his emotions on his tennis shirtsleeves, and these led to much fist-pumping and to a fair amount of coarse language and boorish court behavior. In retrospect, he says it was pretty crazy that he – the self-professed “most hated guy in tennis” – was once the boyfriend and fiancé of Chris Evert, America’s Sweetheart.
If nothing else, Connors was a determined, a never-say-die fighter who viewed tennis as boxing at 90 feet. His all-out aggressive style ultimately led to 109 men’s singles titles, 10 Grand Slam tournament championships, and selection to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I.
The seed of this success story was planted and nurtured in East St. Louis, mostly by his mother, Gloria, and grandmother, “Two-Mom,” whose death so disturbed Connors that he nearly quit tennis. It was his grandmother who initially fell in love with the sport and passed her love along to Gloria, who became a nationally ranked player. Gloria, in turn, set the standard not only for athleticism but for toughness in Jimmy.