Sunday, May 26, 2013

Review: The Outsider (2013)

By Jimmy Connors

No matter what you think of Jimmy Connors, there's little doubt that he was a game-changer when it came to tennis.

The sport was known for its association with country clubs until the late 1960's. In other words, it was for rich, polite people for the most part. That meant the game was mostly for amateurs, with the pros not even allowed to play for national championships.

When the game opened up, pros like Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall became the sport's best at first. But then a new generation came along, changing tennis forever. Connors was the poster boy for that changeover.

He had grown up on the outskirts of St. Louis, not really poor but hardly rich. He was given tennis instructions by his mother. He was loud. He was rude. He was profane. And he wanted to win at all costs.

It was quite a ride for about 20 years, and he's put it on paper in his book, "The Outsider." It's fair to say that whatever your opinion of Connors is, this will confirm it - good and bad.

Give Connors credit for honesty, if nothing else. It doesn't sound like he has changed his mind about anyone or anything. He's still no friend of some of the top names in tennis - John McEnroe and Arthur Ashe, among others - and holds a grudge like nobody's business.

Connors is particularly tough on himself. He writes at length about the time he almost blew up his marriage by having an affair. The longtime star also had quite a gambling problem, perhaps peaking with a million dollar wager. There are stories about parties with Ilie Nastase and tales of one-night stands during his single days. If you are thinking this reads like a rock star's autobiography, you get the idea - although he says he never got involved in drugs in that time, and after everything else that's in the book, it's easy to believe him.

The portion of the book that has generated the most attention takes up only a few pages. In it, Connors strongly hints that one of the reasons that he broke up with Chris Evert was that Evert had to have an abortion. It's one thing to be honest, but it's probably another to write something like that without giving a little warning that it's coming. He gets some serious demerits there.

Connors certainly gets credit for devotion to his family here - the portions about some incidents involving his mother's battering at the hands of a stranger are stunning - and he's obviously quite loyal to his friends. The lefty never gave up when he was on the court, and never tanked a match. He's proud of all that, and rightly so.

The contradictions do add up here. The book doesn't contain much introspection. Connors is willing to admit now that his on-court behavior was far from perfect, but he can't understand why he wasn't a crowd favorite in some situations. Gee, Jimmy, did you ever think you made it tough for us to root for you at times. There are also some unspecified shots at lawyers and reporters without a great deal of documentation. Connors reveals early in the book that he has a reading disability, and can't read much more than a page at a time. Think it might have been a good idea to find someone he trusted earlier in his career to handle some of the business responsibilities? His mother eventually took a great deal of that role; her, he trusted.

In that sense, this is an easy comparison to an autobiography by Mike Piazza, the baseball star. He had a great career but still remembers every perceived slight. Connors, though, has had plenty of time to ponder such problems - more than 20 years, essentially - and hasn't backed down an inch.

The pages, at least, do go by quite quickly. By the end of the story, Connors seems a little lost without a tennis opponent. He's never found an adequate substitute for the competition of the glory days. As has been said before, athletes are often doomed to have the second halves of their lives serve as a long anti-climax. It's a somewhat sad finish.

While it's tough to admire Connors as he goes through almost 400 pages of writing in "The Outsider," everyone can come to the same conclusion: Once he gets your attention, it's tough to look away.

Three stars

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