Rock Center   |  May 10, 2013

Tennis legend Jimmy Connors reveals all

From his engagement to Chris Evert, to the role his mother played in his tennis career, to his gambling addiction when his life on the court faded, legend Jimmy Connors reveals all to Rock Center’s Harry Smith.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> for mother 's day, our next report focuses on one of the most intense mother /son relationships you will ever come across. jimmy connors became a tennis legend famous for his grit also his volcanic temper, but it's the portions of his new memoir that deal with his life off the tennis court that are deservedly getting the most attention. tonight for the first time he talks about all of it with harry smith .

>> reporter: at a municipal tennis court off highway 101 a man repeats a ritual he's been performing since his mother put a racket in his hand. yes, that's jimmy coners. grinding away at a public tennis court . maybe we shouldn't be surprised because in the 1970s , connors was the guy who dragged tennis kicking and screaming from the country clubs to the streets. you come on the scene, you're brash. you yell at umpires. you flip off people in the crowd. you use your tennis racket in obscene ways sometimes. we'll find the pictures.

>> i'm not denying anything.

>> reporter: love him or loathe him, fans wanted to see him.

>> this is what they pay for. this is what they want.

>> reporter: they're amazed by you. they're transfixed on you. but they don't necessarily like you.

>> well, not at the beginning, no. i mean i'm going to get hammered for this, but i don't really care. tennis needed a face-lift. we needed people who were loving baseball, basketball.

>> reporter: the average sports fan.

>> the real sports fan. not the average sports fan. the real sports fan who wanted to come see two guys going at it willing to give everything they had, break their back for them, leave their blood on the court and have fun doing it.

>> reporter: you were the torch that lit that fire.

>> burn. let it burn . i needed something to do.

>> reporter: and now connors is likely to burn a few bridges after a long self-imposed exile. he's emerged with a raw and revealing memoir called "the outsider."

>> you know, i look back, it was painful writing this book. going back. i had amnesia for so long. it resurrected a lot of things that kind of made me look at myself.

>> reporter: here are the headlines. how his engagement to chris evert ended. how he brazenly humiliated his wife with a very public affair . how he tortured him family with a high stakes gambling addiction and how he never said no to his mother who taught him the game but also tried to wall jimmy off from the world. east st. louis, illinois, north 68th street, the house where tennis lessons from mom began on a backyard practice wall. when the family moved, the new house had a full-sized court. people said there's something wrong with this relationship. why is it? what's this deal with connors ? your opponents would call you a mama's boy. what was that like for you?

>> but never to my face. it's interesting because i've said many, many times that it's okay for joe montana 's dad to hit him with the football, wayne gretzky 's dad to give him a hockey stick but a relationship with your mother especially who had the guts to step up just wasn't acceptable.

>> reporter: jimmy and his mother . their relationship was the source of his success and the reason for his rage.

>> i think a lot went back to the incident with my mother .

>> reporter: you're at a tennis court --

>> right. when she got smacked.

>> reporter: jones park in east st. louis. jimmy and his mom were playing here one day when gloria asked two men playing nearby to turn down their radio. in response one man hit her so hard he knocked her teeth out. how old were you?

>> 8. about 7, 8 years old.

>> reporter: to hear you talk about it, it sounds like it happened yesterday.

>> it did. in my mind, it did.

>> reporter: because she was hurt pretty badly.

>> i don't know if she ever got over it or not, but she never said a word about it after that day.

>> reporter: really?

>> not a word. nope.

>> reporter: gloria connors would mold jimmy 's tennis career, no matter where it would take them, no matter the cost. your mother had the right idea on that. in 1968 , gloria took jimmy to beverly hills . he was 16. there gloria surrendered the rest of jimmy 's tennis education to tennis legend pancho sigura.

>> she had taken me as far as she could. and she realized that. that was more her genius, not only did she give me the game, very compact, easy playing game, but she knew when to turn me loose.

>> reporter: take me back to 1974 . you won 99 matches, 15 tournaments, all of the grand slams except the french open . that's a pretty good year.

>> that's a career.

>> reporter: for most people.

>> right.

>> reporter: cover of "time" magazine.

>> that's one of the coolest right there. being on the cover of "time".

>> reporter: and to top it all off, the bad boy of tennis was dating the princess of the court, chris evert . when 19-year-old evert and 21-year-old connors both won wimbledon in 1974 , the british press dubbed it the love double. the two were engaged with a november wedding date. why didn't you and chris get married?

>> bad timing at the time for both of us. even though we had something very special during the time that we were together, it was -- you know, the pressure on us was unbelievable.

>> reporter: last week word spread of connors ' shocking revelation. from what i'm reading, it looks to me like she had an abortion. did you and chris have a conversation about this? about making a decision like that?

>> well, that was certainly a decision that needed to be made, and you know to have faced that together and to go through that together was a necessarily, sure.

>> reporter: in reaction, chris evert released this statement. jimmy connors has written about a time in our relationship that was very personal and emotionally painful. i am extremely disappointed that he used the book to misrepresent a private matter that took place 40 years ago and made it public without my knowledge. in 1978 , connors married the former patti mcguire . she was the new playmate of the year. by this time, gloria connors had developed a reputation as an iron lady who controlled all aspects of her son's life. how did you get along with jimmy 's mom?

>> not well. not well. i mean, i loved her, but she was a tough cookie. all 5'2".

>> reporter: what was that about? because you write in your book that your mother basically froze patti out.

>> well, you know, my mom, as like patti said, she hunched her shoulders and did what she did, which was, you know, almost, you know, push patti aside.

>> reporter: jimmy , here's your point to say, i should have stood up to my mother and --

>> listen, you're leaning in to me. that's a bad sign.

>> reporter: in the book, connors writes how in 1983 he openly cheated on patti . let me just ask you why did you stay?

>> bottom line is i loved him. and you know, no one's infallible. we all make mistakes.

>> i think that, you know, it's been written many times that patti connors was a saint to put up with jimmy connors . and i've said that's the only thing the press really got right about my whole career. they don't know how right they are about that.

>> reporter: but most tennis fans remember about jimmy connors and what some of us will never forget took place in september of 1991 , the u.s. open . we were riveted that labor day . his 39th birthday. watching an epic nearly five-hour match, connors beat aaron cricksteen, a top ten player 15 years his junior.

>> i've never felt anything like that before ever. and for me, that's what i waited 20 years to hear.

>> reporter: when connors finally left the game in the late '90s and the cheering stopped, his landing in real life wasn't pretty. patti was busy at home with son brett and daughter aubrey. without the adrenaline rush of tennis , jimmy turned to compulsive big money gambling, an expensive substitute. what did you tell him?

>> either that goes or i go.

>> reporter: really?

>> yeah, i'm not going to put up with that.

>> reporter: so you still gamble?

>> no.

>> reporter: done?

>> finished.

>> reporter: now on new artificial hips connors is at the muni court regularly breaking a sweat with good friends cindy nally and pete moran na. as ever, he's generous with hackers.

>> no, impossible!

>> reporter: i've always wanted to do it.

>> what?

>> reporter: and is accommodating to autograph seekers.

>> pleasure to meet you.

>> thank you so much.

>> reporter: have you mellowed?

>> does it look like it?

>> reporter: maybe a little.

>> well, i don't like the word "mellow" because it seems -- i don't want it to take away from really what i am all about.

>> reporter: maybe mature?

>> oh, i'll take ta even better. i'll take that one. maybe.

>> harry smith with a mature jimmy connors in santa barbara , california.