The Outsider: My Autobiography
Bantam Press, 416pp, £18.99
As everyone knows, sport has always been in perpetual decline and fall. Immediately after the first spear was hurled on the savannah someone objected that sport was far better back in the good old days. Golden ageism is as old as the game.
The exact nature of sport’s mythical golden age is less clear. One version of sports history sees gentlemanly virtues being pushed aside by greed and vulgarity. A different view, logically contradictory to the former but nonetheless often held in tandem, harks back to a time when sport was “authentic”, when men were men, heroes were heroes and champions were “characters” – warriors who lived and drank hard, never letting their on-field ambitions get in the way of an honest night-club bust-up followed by a willing blonde or two.
These two criticisms of modern sport can be rolled out indefinitely and interchangeably. Hence the nostalgic sports fan can lament the tragic passing of the noble Corinthian ideal of gentlemanly fair play when no one thought twice about a V-sign to the Royal Box or a wholesome line of coke with a Miss World.
In the case of tennis, nostalgia comes up against an awkward adversary: the present. In terms of physical virtuosity, memorable rivalries and jaw-dropping matches, men’s tennis leads the pack of world sports. Earlier this month, a semi-final at Roland Garros between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal joined the swelling number of recent matches in the elite club of all-time classics.
So kudos to Jimmy Connors for valiantly trying to argue in his autobiography, The Outsider, that the current spectacle of Roger Federer, Djokovic and Nadal – whose courtesy and dignity generally match the superlative quality of their play – has nothing on his own era of incontinent litigiousness, oncourt swearing, childish tantrums, umpire abuse, celebratory crotch-grabbing and mutual hatred between top players.
Connors’s book has the ring of honesty, as though he is trying to be entirely straightforward. He is certainly determined to leave the reader in no doubt that he was a prolific womaniser. At first, Connors contents himself with nods and winks. This yields to lines such as “you can’t beat a bit of mixed doubles”. But you sense the effort of self-control is taking its toll on the author and eventually the dams burst. The relief is palpable when Connors gets to write about his friend, fellow tennis player Ilie Nastase: “Nasty claimed in his autobiography that he’d slept with over 2,500 women. I couldn’t tell you if he was exaggerating, since I was only around for 1,500 of them.”
Victories, as well as conquests, can be traced to his own manhood. “I win the match with nuts the size of grapefruits, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4. Take that, I think.” Indeed, you do not need to be a convinced Freudian to discern a link between Connors’s extremely close relationship with his mother (she was his coach, manager and effectively his agent) and his lifelong pride in his machismo.
Those two central facets of his character came together on the night he hooked up with his future wife, the Playboy Playmate Patti Lynn McGuire. The following morning they were disturbed by a second woman knocking persistently at the bedroom door demanding to see “Jimbo”. It was his Mum. “She’s been staying in my second bedroom and I guess I forgot to tell Patti about that.” Connors was 26 at the time.
Between trophies of one kind or another, Connors offers occasional disquisitions about the state of the modern game. Modern technique is “not as effective”. As for the spectacle, “I’ve got to ask: Where is the show?” Connors sees himself as the straight- talking outsider who says things as they are, a wholesome contrast with today’s polished ambassadors. And yet Connors cheerfully admits that his own “spontaneous assholery” was partly about finding his own niche: “Once my notoriety spread, the agents came calling.”
Connors’s book is a magnificent snapshot of his era: Gordon Gekko, “nice guys finish last”, “all publicity is good publicity”, manners are masks for snobbery, honour is hypocrisy, everyone is trying to screw everyone, so just man up and be honest about it.
And yet the interesting point about men’s tennis is that history proved us all wrong. What once seemed an inevitable cultural trajectory was halted and then reversed. Bad boy brashness stopped being bracing and became deeply boring. We got tired of the act.
More importantly, the evidence from the court proved that there is no competitive advantage to “assholery”. It was just a passing fad, a marketing tool. Sport has moved on. For sheer willpower, Nadal is at least the match of Connors. But instead of acting up to the part of pugilist, he simply returns quietly to the baseline and digs into his reserves of epic competitiveness.
Connors has written an honest book that tries to argue that the sport he loves is not what it once was. He certainly develops a powerful argument – just not the one he sets out to make.