Tennis champion Jimmy Connors

The International Tennis Hall of Famer recounts stories from his no-holds-barred memoir, The Outsider.

Known for his intensity, his fierce two-handed backhand and epic rivalries, Jimmy Connors is one of the top tennis players of all time. He ranked in the top 10 in the world for 16 straight years—five of them at number one—and is the only player to win the U.S. Open on grass, clay and hard courts. He ended his career with a men's open–era record 109 singles titles and eight Grand Slam singles titles. Connors learned to play tennis from his mom, a former pro, at an early age and turned pro himself after his freshman year at UCLA. An International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee, he's been a TV analyst and written several books, including his memoir, The Outsider.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: The aggressive take-no-prisoners style of play that defined Jimmy Connors as a tennis champion is now so taken for granted that it’s hard to remember that this working class kid from East St. Louis just about redefined how tennis was played.

Some might say not necessarily for the better, he broke rules, challenged line judges, argued his case. When earlier champions had been praised for their gentleman-like demeanor, Connors was all about winning, and he did so with gusto, remaining in the top 10 for 16 years, five as number one, including getting to the semifinals at the U.S. Open at the ancient for tennis age of 39.

He writes about this and so much more in a wonderful new book, a provocative new book called “The Outsider: A Memoir.” Jimmy Connors, I am honored, after having watched you so many, many years, to have you on this program.

Jimmy Connors: Good to see you.

Tavis: Good to have you on, man.

Connors: It’s a pleasure, thanks.

Tavis: I was teasing Jimmy when he came on the show. There’s a young man on my staff named Danny Miles Davis who’s from St. Louis. Danny, of course, an African American, and I told Jimmy Connors when he walked on, “You’re the only white guy I know (laughter) from East St. Louis.” Are there white folk in East St. Louis?

Connors: Yeah, it’s good roots. (Laughter) I’ll tell you.

Tavis: When you think of East St. Louis, one of the first names that come to mind for me is Jackie Joyner Kersey, another great athlete, Jimmy Connors out of East St. Louis. What’s in the water in East St. Louis?

Connors: I’ll take it. I’ll take the company. My mom, my dad, my grandparents came from East St. Louis and my upbringing, with the way it was back in the ’30s, ’40s, and the ’50s. I came around in 1952. My grandfather was mayor of East St. Louis and police commissioner – good roots. I loved it.

But it was also, I also knew that there was a time when I wanted to go. My mom taught me tennis, gave me an opportunity to play. Back in East St. Louis, tennis wasn’t the real thing. If you weren’t playing baseball, basketball, football, you were kind of on the outside.

My mom gave me a game that allowed me to stretch out, and when I was 16, I was ready to go.

Tavis: I’m just ribbing you about the – I’m from the Midwest, I’m from Indiana.

Connors: I know, I know you are.

Tavis: So I’m just ribbing you about that good, Midwest upbringing which I never take for granted. Having said that, we’re going to talk about how you made the shit from East St. Louis to California at about 16, 15 years of age, but I want to go back to where you started a moment ago.

That is with your mom and your grandmom, in part because I don’t know of any other tennis great who was as influenced by his mother and by his grandmother as opposed to – Andre Agassi was here when his book came out, it was a great book as well.

Andre’s dad just beat this into him to the point at one point where Andre almost hated tennis because his dad just laid on him so heavy to play. But in your case, it’s your mom and your grandmom. How does that happen?

Connors: Well, my grandmother loved tennis and she got involved in it, I’m sure by mistake. Picked up a racquet and started teaching herself. My mom came along, and I really only noticed three people throughout the course of my life who loved tennis that much – my mother, my grandmother, and Pancho Segura.

So when I came along, my mom would go out and teach tennis to supplement the income, and I wanted to be around it. First of all, I loved being around my mother and my grandmother, and it was great fun.

Then when tennis came along, rolled me balls and hit some shots and be around it, but I took to it. With the time spent with them and also with the tennis, geez, it was a perfect match, so.

Tavis: Did that make you a mama’s boy?

Connors: Well, I’ve been called that many times, many times.

Tavis: Yeah? How’d you deal with being called a mama’s boy?

Connors: But it was okay for Wayne Gretzky’s dad, for instance, to give him a hockey stick, or Joe Montana’s dad to give him a football, or Larry Byrd’s dad to give him a basketball, but it wasn’t okay for Gloria Connors to give her son a tennis racquet.

But times were so different back then. It was the ’50s, and women really hadn’t started coming to the forefront yet. My mom took a chance, but she didn’t really know what she was giving me, Tavis. She was giving me a game to get off the streets and to have something to work at and maybe get an education out of it.

Nobody knew where that was going, especially when you’re three, four, five, six years old. I happened to take to it. I say that again because I loved it, and I have a brother, John, who’s 17 months older. He was involved in it at the same time and he was older, so he was always first.

I didn’t like that so much, but he got along with it. But then as we got older, he broke from that and wanted to go and run and be with his buddies and do other things. I didn’t.

I liked the hanging with my mom and grandma, and the playing of the tennis. Now, how did I deal with the mama’s boy? I didn’t really – what was so different about that? I never thought that that was really any big deal until everybody started making such a big deal about it.

Tavis: But in sports, the last thing a guy wants to be called is a mama’s boy, a sissy. Nobody wants to be called that.

Connors: Yeah, but I mean – (laughter) I can laugh about it now because I’m not 19, 20, 21 years old now, with a bad attitude.

Tavis: Right, that’s why I’m asking.

Connors: Yeah.

Tavis: If your attitude was anything like at 20, yeah.

Connors: Well, right.

Tavis: You didn’t deck a couple people?

Connors: Well I’m too small for that, but I handled it in other ways, and that just drove me even more to -

Tavis: To beat people.

Connors: To beat them, right.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Connors: Everybody wants to know what made you like you were, why are you like that, what chased you in that direction. I’m laying it out right there, and they all miss it. A lot of them are missing it. Maybe they drove me – “they” meaning from the outside to me. They drove me more than they really expected or even really thought that they were.

Tavis: Let me flipped this notion of driving, because I mentioned Agassi a moment ago. He was driven so much by his father at one point, as I said, he started to hate tennis.

Your mother and grandmother turned you on to this. Was there ever a moment – if there was a moment, I missed it in my reading -

Connors: Never pushed into it.

Tavis: That’s what I was – you never felt, you never resented at all -

Connors: No. No.

Tavis: Because I didn’t see that, yeah.

Connors: Actually, I can’t pay them back enough. They allowed me to play and they gave me the opportunity to play. I also had a very normal childhood. A lot of people thought that it was only tennis, and tennis only, and never got to do anything else. So much wrong with that.

Tennis was always there for me, which was lucky. I would go play baseball, basketball, football, hang with my brother, do whatever, and at the end of the day I’d come back and say, “Hey, Mom, would you hit 15 minutes’ worth of balls with me?” In a minute.

Tavis: So you talk about it in the book, it’s a fascinating story – tell us about the first time at about 15, as I recall, that you beat your mother.

Connors: Well, it was by accident, certainly.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Connors: My mom was a good player, really a fine player, and would have liked to have continued her own career, but she took me to the little nationals, and I was getting ready to play a match, and we went out and were warming up.

She said, “Okay, let’s serve them up and play a set,” and that’s where she always got me also. It was never just hitting, it was always playing and trying to do what you would do while you’re on the court.

Happened to be on and ended up winning the set, and I go to the net and I’m shaking. I said, “I shouldn’t really do that. I’m sorry, Mom.” She realized that – she gave me that, and that’s the day she was waiting for, because she knew that if I could beat her, that then there was another step out there, and she had to figure that out, too.

Tavis: The thing I really loved about this book, particularly in the era that we live, where parents of starts – I’m talking about movie stars, athletic stars – that parents of stars who start these kids out never know when to let go. I can give you a whole bunch of names in this town of parents who when the child star realizes they need something different, the parent doesn’t want to let go.

If the kid lets the parent go, then all hell breaks loose inside the family. But your mom wasn’t like that. She knew at a certain point that you were beyond her coaching, that you needed something different and you needed something else, and she didn’t try to hold on to you.

Connors: No. I think that was her main genius, in my opinion, that she had given me the game, certainly, and she gave me the game that lasted throughout my whole career.

But she knew that there was more to just the tennis. That I was taught by a woman, certainly, the women’s game was different back then. I needed to be around a man, somebody that would give me that mental way of thinking and bring out maybe a little bit more of that toughness and that killer instinct and that drive to try to be the best.

For her to let me go was really quite something, and when I left, I was apprehensive too. There was no doubt. But she turned me over to her friend, Pancho Segura, and it was -

Tavis: At what age?

Connors: Well, their conversation was 15.

Tavis: Right.

Connors: When I was 15, and so for me – and I remember sitting there, standing there, as they were speaking, and I was just watching them speak. Pancho Segura, one of the greatest of all times, stood there and talked to my mother.

How many times did he hear “My kid’s got some talent?” Millions of times, I’m sure. So why did he take me? It’s always been a thought on my mind. Was it because of his friend, Gloria Connors, Gloria Thompson, or did he see something or did he hear something?

But when he took me in, I understood that it was for a reason, and even though I moved from a little town in Illinois to Los Angeles, I was there for a reason. With everything else that would swirl around me when I got involved in it, tennis was my main concern.

Tavis: In retrospect now, what do you most appreciate about what you did, in fact, receive from Segura?

Connors: Oh, he gave me everything.

Tavis: Right.

Connors: Outside of the game. My mom made it clear, and Pancho understood that my game was intact. Now, anything else he could give me outside of that, not just on the court but off the court too – life experiences, everything – take me in and do that, and he did.

I’m sure being close friends with his son was a great opportunity too, but looking back, the tennis part of it, the on-court, the attitude, the flair for showmanship, the entertainment value of it, the concentration part of it, the killer instinct part of it, everything started to transform.

Because I never was really around any of that until I went to California, because my mom wasn’t able to give me that. She made me what I was. She didn’t make me who I became.

I think Pancho had more to do with that, and then I certainly had a lot to do with that on my own.

Tavis: When did you know that you were good enough to be a pro and to be a really good pro?

Connors: Oh, I was 17, and I’d had some moderate success beating a few players. But I had the opportunity to play the great Australian Roy Emerson in Los Angeles at the L.A. Tennis Club, and I went through the qualifying, I won five matches to even get into the tournament.

Then to play him in the first round, I didn’t know if I was excited about that or scared to death. To go in to play him, we played on the poolside court at the L.A. Tennis Club, and the only two people there were Pancho and Spencer.

So I’m walking out and warming up and I’m saying, “Oh, man.” I said, “This is an opportunity of a lifetime, and there’s nobody here.” Well, that didn’t last long. I won the first set off of him, and then all of a sudden the word’s buzzing around.

Pretty soon a crowd started forming and watching the action and watching me play, and I ended up winning that match.

Now, I’ve been in Roy Emerson’s spot when I got older too, and he came from the U.S. Open and he was tired, and the last guy he wanted to play was a little 17-year-old eager kid.

But it was an opportunity of a lifetime for me, and to have taken advantage of that – I walked off of there and I can still remember Pancho and Spencer walking up to him and go into the locker room.

Now when I walked into that match, I was in locker room number two. When I walked off of that match, I was in a locker next to Pancho Gonzalez in the main locker room – the biggest thrill of my life. Winning that match right there told me that if I keep working, keep going at it the right way, keep listening, and keep being disciplined, then I have an opportunity.

Tavis: Let me fast-forward way down the road, and then we’ll come back, because I’m fascinated now by your comment a moment ago that later in your career you know what it felt like to be in his shoes.

So what did it feel like years later when that was happening to you at the hands of these young guys?

Connors: Well, I went from looking for somebody where I could make my reputation to being a reputation-maker. The older you get, certainly – as I got older, I became a situation player, so the bigger the situation, the better I would play.

But to go out when you’re 36, 37, 38 years old and having a long match the day before and having those aches and pains, and playing against a young kid that’s willing to do anything to go and to show his stuff and to get that reputation, it’s hard work.

But the older I got, the more I understood what it meant and why I was starting to do that, and why I wanted to push myself to try to continue to play and to try to have one more opportunity.

That’s something a lot of athletes miss, I think, Tavis, is that a lot of them walk away too soon. They don’t get everything out of their system. They have a lot of what-ifs when they’re sitting around later in life.

I don’t have that. I got all that out of my system. I pushed it to the brink, I loved it, and when I walked away, I’d had enough.

Tavis: For those who do – you’re right. Some people leave too soon and so they end up trying to come back. There are others, though, who leave and should stay gone and still try to come back.

Connors: Right.

Tavis: What is it about those persons in that latter category that just can’t leave it lay where it was?

Connors: There’s nothing like it.

Tavis: Yeah.

Connors: Nothing like the feeling. Nothing.

Tavis: Does that make your life then uninteresting for the 50, 60 years you have left to live?

Connors: Oh, no. Oh, no. But sometimes you get caught up in chasing that feeling, which is impossible to find. But there’s nothing like the feeling of going and putting what you are and what you have live in front of 25,000 people and millions upon millions more on television, and having them be in your living room, watching you, just being down there with you.

The feeling of the performance and the excellence and everything, unless you’ve done it, I guess it’s hard to really understand. But staying too long – there’s a fine line between that, and it came down to my career where I was out with a wrist injury, a major reconstructive wrist surgery, and that was my main drive.

I didn’t want that to tell me to walk away. I needed to walk away on my own terms. Okay, I can’t compete now. I don’t feel like working hard enough. I just don’t have it.

Tavis: But not my wrist, yeah.

Connors: But I didn’t my wrist telling me okay, you’ve had it. So I gave it one more chance and it turned out to be the best 11 days of my whole career.

Tavis: How do you best describe what it felt like at 39 to be in that moment?

Connors: Well, when I came into tennis it was a different game. I gave it a different attitude, and a lot of people liked it, and a lot of people didn’t. I’m reminded of a saying that says don’t be afraid to do what you do, because the people that mind don’t matter, and the people that matter don’t mind.

So that’s kind of the way I felt when I came into tennis, that I was young, I was ready for something different. Tennis was a great release for me. So I wanted more than just 2,500 people and once in a while on TV and all that.

Tennis in my generation became that, but fast-forward to the ’91 Open, tennis at that time, in those 11 days, the fans and the game itself gave me everything I was ever looking for.

If I’d walked away right then and there and said I’ve had enough with tennis, I would have been just fine, because the crowd, the noise, their enthusiasm, their excitement for not only the play but for the atmosphere and just everything that was surrounding the whole time that I was in the tournament, it was indescribable.

But I was in the eye of the hurricane of what was going on. Everything around me – I would call home, my kids were in school, so they couldn’t be there, my wife couldn’t be there. She said, “Do you what’s going on here?” I said, “What?”

She says, “You can’t believe it.” What that did, I think it also transcended tennis a little bit, that all of a sudden 39 or 40 wasn’t so old anymore, and a lot of people understood that get up off the couch and get back into it.

Whether it’s jogging or working or playing with your kids or whatever, that the couch is for later on. It’s time to get up and get moving.

Tavis: Yeah, well, I wasn’t there, but I was watching it. One of the most thrilling and exciting matches ever. (Laughter)

Connors: Nice.

Tavis: You gave a lot of us some joy over those days.

Connors: Nice.

Tavis: You mentioned earlier, so I’m glad you went there because I wanted to go there anyway, that you “changed tennis.” To your point, to the minds of some, for the better; to the minds of others, for the worse, but however one defines it, you Americanized the game with the attitude, with the style, with the bigness, the brashness. Do you think that was changing it for the better or for the worse?

Connors: Well, I wasn’t alone, don’t get me wrong. (Unintelligible)

Tavis: No, McEnroe was there, a bunch of other ones.

Connors: Yeah, there were a lot of guys.

Tavis: You weren’t the only bad boy, yeah. (Laughter)

Connors: No, no, there was more than just me hanging out out there.

Tavis: Of course, of course.

Connors: But tennis was a country club sport, no doubt, and it had a lot of great champions, and all gentlemen, except for maybe Pancho Gonzalez and his attitude and so forth.

But tennis, did I change it for the better? I don’t know. It certainly changed to grab on to more people that could identify with who was out there playing and their style of play. It became more blue-collar. We were starting to reach out and grab the real fans from the other sports now, gave them a reason to come and watch guys playing tennis, as opposed to just watching to hit the ball back and forth.

So guys were willing to go out there, and they had their own personalities on the court and off the court, which I think was a big part of it. But they also gave those who would never have watched tennis an emotional involvement in what we were doing, which gave them a chance to look in on us, see what we were doing, and they just happened to like it. So it’s a good time.

Tavis: There’s some ups and downs in this book, to be sure. One of the downs, when you lost your friend Vitas Gerulaitis, another great player. When you’re 39, almost 40, and you’re at the U.S. Open turning this thing upside-down, Gerulaitis is battling a major drug issue and is dead at 40.

How does it speak to your own mortality when a guy you’ve played with and done the circuit with dies at 40?

Connors: Well, it was interesting. When I was making the run in ’91 at the Open, he was doing the interviews and I was walking the streets of New York, talking to him.

He was transcending his own life, becoming a broadcaster, he got involved in golf, and so a lot of things that he was doing, a lot of his addictions were changing for the positive.

Tavis: Sure.

Connors: To look back after that event, I started a Senior tour. Vitas was a huge part of that. His personality and his ability to interact with corporations and fans and so forth really made the tour a success.

To lose him at such a young age; and we were friends. He had a lot of other friends, Tavis, that around the tennis. Borg certainly was a great friend, McEnroe was a great friend.

I think his friendship with me and my family was more – and I’m kind of proud to say this – he felt safe with being involved in that. If I would have asked him to stay one more day, might have all – everything might have changed.

But he had his foundation that was necessary, he had an event that he had promised to be to, he wanted to see his mom. So I said, “Go and have a safe trip.” That’s the last time I saw him.

But I still think about that today, the impact that it had on me and the tennis world, losing somebody that was so important to the game like he at such a young age was devastating and I still can’t get over it.

Tavis: You’re not going anywhere anytime soon, but when that moment does come, because we all have to go that way eventually, what do you hope will be said about you? What do you want your legacy to be, and I ask that because nobody writes a memoir without wanting to put their own thoughts on the record. What do you want us to say about you?

Connors: (Laughter) I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of things said out there that – there are going to be good and bad.

Tavis: Yeah.

Connors: I would think that if you want to put it on the tennis side, just say that every time I walked out there I gave it everything I ever had. I walked off of there satisfied and complete and not one what-if.

If you want to put it on the personal side, I would say that I lived my life the way I wanted to live it and gave it everything I had. Nothing’s perfect along the way, and you ride the ups and downs with it. It’s how you come out of those and continue on that I guess really matters.

I’m also not begging. I’m not begging to be remembered or whatever. I did my thing, and if you remember, that’s even better. But if you don’t, there’s so many other things going on now.

Tennis has gone on, and the way the kids play now and what they have to offer, and the way they go about things, the way science has changed their training and the way they play.

Tennis has gone on to a different level big business wise too, of course. But it was the guys before me even, the Seguras and the Gonzalezes and the Levres and the Arthur Ashes and going on back – Bobby Riggs – that laid the groundwork for me to have an opportunity to play.

I hope that what my generation did was a big part in laying the groundwork to where tennis has become right now, so.

Tavis: It is a life well lived and ongoing, thankfully, and I haven’t even scratched the surface on this memoir, but you’ll want to get it for yourself. It’s called “The Outsider: A Memoir,” by one of the greats – Jimmy Connors, who I’ve been delighted to have had on this program tonight. Jimmy Connors, good to have you here.

Connors: Pleasure, sir.

Tavis: Good to see you, man.

Connors: Good to see you.

Tavis: Thank you. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

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Last modified: August 10, 2013 at 11:04 pm