The Outsider by Jimmy Connors: Is there a competitive advantage to “assholery”?

Former tennis player Jimmy Connors' memoir has the ring of honesty, as though he is trying to be entirely straightforward.

The Outsider: My Autobiography
Jimmy Connors
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.

Jimmy Connors in 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era