"The Outsider" by Jimmy Connors; Harper (416 pages, $28.99)
The St. Louis area has produced several world-class tennis players, including Wimbledon champions Arthur Ashe and the doubles team of Ken Flach and Robert Seguso. But the player who scrawled the name St. Louis on the map was tennis' original bad boy, Jimmy Connors.
Actually, his place on the map was on the wrong side of the river. As Connors recounts in his new memoir, "The Outsider," he was born in 1952 in East St. Louis, where his grandfather, John Connors, had been the mayor and his father, Jim Connors Sr., was in charge of collecting tolls on the Veterans Bridge.
While some juicy stories about his grandfather, father and brother John associating with criminals get brief mentions, Jimmy devotes a lot more ink to two women in his life: his tennis-playing grandmother, Bertha Thompson, and her equally sporty daughter, Gloria Thompson Connors. Gloria had been a touring tennis player and coached celebrities in Hollywood before settling with Jim Sr. in East St. Louis (and later Belleville). But she lived her tennis dream through her son Jimmy.
Among the many things that Jimmy shrugs off in this plain-spoken book is the notion that he was a mama's boy. True, Gloria was his coach and business manager, and even after Jimmy climbed the rungs to the No. 1 ranking (where he remained for a record five years), mother and son spoke 10 times a day, but Gloria wasn't a tyrant.
That was Jimmy's role.
Anyone who remembers the white-collar world of tennis before Connors came along knows that he was a workhorse of a different color. In the '70s, tennis was evolving from an amateur pastime to a big-time business that fought football and boxing for the regular-guy audience, and Connors was the sport's ill-mannered mascot. On the court, the lefty popularized the two-fisted backhand, the metal racket and the temperamental outburst. Off the court, the nightclub-and-casino denizen made headlines by dating the best female player in the world (Chris Evert), a Miss World (Marjorie Wallace) and a Playboy Playmate of the Year (Patti McGuire).
McGuire, with whom Connors has two children and is still married despite his admitted infidelities, is treated respectfully in the book. But Connors' former fiancee Evert is not so lucky. Without consulting her, Connors has chosen to reveal in this book that she terminated a pregnancy while they were the darlings of the tennis world.
Connors also devotes a chapter to the cocaine habit of his late friend Vitas Gerulaitis and accuses opponents such as the great Guillermo Vilas and Ivan Lendl of cheating the paying customers with inferior play.
Connors is not nearly so critical of his own behavior, which entailed bullying other players, the chair umpires and even the fans who funded the lifestyle about which he is not insightful.
Compared to the smart memoirs by Connors' younger alter-ego, John McEnroe, and successor, Andre Agassi, "The Outsider" is a disappointment. While we get blow-by-blow accounts of epic matches, we never get inside Connors' cranium. But that's not surprising, because he made a fortune as a defensive counter-puncher.
If tennis fans want sustained and graceful flow, they can hope for an autobiography by Bjorn Borg, the baselining Swedish rival who retired at age 26 and hasn't found it necessary to defend himself since.