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

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.