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OUTSIDE LOOKING IN

Nov. 29, 2004
Nov. 29, 2004

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Nov. 29, 2004

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  • In a spectacular flameout after he retired from tennis, Roscoe Tanner deceived his friends and family and ended up penniless and in jail. Now he hopes to heal the wounds he's inflicted and repay all his debts--but it won't be easy

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OUTSIDE LOOKING IN

In a spectacular flameout after he retired from tennis, Roscoe Tanner deceived his friends and family and ended up penniless and in jail. Now he hopes to heal the wounds he's inflicted and repay all his debts--but it won't be easy

ROCK BOTTOM? That's tough to pinpoint, he says, sighing. So many lows to choose from. Rock bottom might have come when he walked into that Stygian cell in a German prison and realized that for the length of his stay he would be defecating in front of his cellmate. "Man," he says, "that was humiliating." The time he was arrested in front of all those fans at a senior tennis event, that was pretty embarrassing, too. And when his father, once his most ardent supporter, turned uncommunicative, that one really stung. No, wait, I've got it, he says. Here's the lowest moment of his odyssey: Immediately after he finished serving four months in a maximum security county jail in Florida on a grand theft charge, he was transferred to a New Jersey jail where he would serve five months for willfully withholding child support. For two weeks he sat on a TransCor bus--think Con Air on the interstate--that zigzagged along the Eastern Seaboard picking up other criminals who were being reassigned from one jail to another. The bus, with no air conditioning, was hotter than hell. At night the convicts either slept in their seats or, if they were lucky, bunked down at a county jail en route. They were allotted three meals a day, but there was a catch: Their hands never came out of restraints. Ever try eating McDonald's with your wrists locked at your waist? he asks. It's not real pleasant.

This is an article from the Nov. 29, 2004 issue Original Layout

This is what it came to recently for Roscoe Tanner. The tennis star who once shared drinks with Prince Rainier on the French Riviera and dined with the Reagans in the White House was sitting on a bus near an exit ramp, positioning his chin at just the right angle so he could eat a Big Mac and some fries.

RoscoeTtanner is not, of course, the first retired athlete to turn his life into a Hieronymus Bosch canvas. But it's hard to imagine a less likely candidate to make an absolute mess of things. Tennis players just don't fall into the abyss--especially not a player born to the manor, with a Stanford diploma, a thick Rolodex of connections and, if that weren't endowment enough, movie-star looks and boundless reserves of charm.

As Tanner retraces his via dolorosa, you have to remind yourself that the eminently likable narrator of this story is also its protagonist, the man who is on probation in three states, has amassed a mountain of debt and is on tenuous terms with much of his family. By all outward appearances, Tanner conforms to the image of a former tennis star in the second set of middle age. He recently turned 53 but could easily pass for a decade younger. He's tan, fit and blessed by the tonsorial gods with a full thatch of light brown hair. He spends his weekends on a beach haven off the coast of Southern California called Balboa Island, where $1 million might get you a three-bedroom cottage. Holding court at a restaurant in late October, he is flanked by an assortment of friends and his blonde, younger third wife, Margaret. Tanner speaks enthusiastically of his job as a tennis teacher in Laguna Niguel. Margaret gushes that Roscoe is a "super dad" to her twin teenage daughters from a previous marriage.

During the meal there are occasional hints that something has gone terribly awry. A discussion about politics quickly fades when a member of the dinner party realizes that Tanner, as a convicted felon, might not be able to vote. Tanner passes on the bruschetta, casually mentioning that it reminds him too much of the weight he gained in jail eating little but white bread. When the check arrives, Tanner looks away--he can't cover the tab, so he doesn't even feign reaching for it. After the meal he and Margaret walk to a friend's pad where they are living until Roscoe can come up with the cash to pay the security deposit and first month's rent on an apartment.

But Tanner is delightful company, a funny, self-deprecating man who makes everyone feel comfortable. His voice, a rolling bass with a slight Southern twang, is nothing if not smooth. Mistakes, he concedes again and again, have been made. But he's "putting things back together," he's "picking up the pieces," he's "attending church regularly and doing the right thing."

You believe him. You root for him. It takes a conscious effort to consider the possibility that this could all just be the latest in his lengthy history of deceptions.

Lookout Mountain, Tenn., sounds like the kind of backwater town immortalized in country music ballads. It's not. With a median household income in excess of $100,000, it's one of America's most moneyed enclaves, a suburb of Chattanooga that sits on a promontory from which you can see seven states on a clear day. Even in a community steeped in wealth and status, the Tanners were a distinguished clan. They traced their roots to British royalty. Leonard Roscoe Tanner II, a successful attorney, had studied law at the University of Chicago and was friendly with Tennessee's leading politicians, right up to the governor. He and his wife, Anne, had two daughters and then a son, Leonard Roscoe III, who were raised in a succession of ever-larger homes, the last a doge's palace of more than 7,000 square feet.

Roscoe, as everybody called the boy, wanted for nothing. But neither was he spoiled. Leonard, a stoic father cut from the Atticus Finch mold, was, as we say today, old school. He insisted that his son perform chores and No, Ma'am and Yessir the adults. Leonard took a particular interest in his son's tennis, analyzing his losses as though they were complex legal issues. In 1966 the teenage Roscoe struggled in his matches and finally summoned the courage to confront the old man at the end of the year. "Dad, leave me to figure tennis out for myself," he said. "If I don't get better, I'll quit. But if I win a national title, you have to buy me a car." Leonard went along with that. Liberated from Dad and all the attendant pressure, Roscoe won four national titles in 1967. "My dad didn't get me four cars, though," he says. "I got one. A used white Pontiac Tempest."

Roscoe went to the Baylor School, a semi--military academy in Chattanooga with a powerhouse tennis team coached at the time by Jerry Evert, Chris's uncle. His teammates included Zan Guerry and Brian Gottfried, both of whom would play professionally. Roscoe was an unassuming kid with no discernible ego. "I honestly can't remember a single thing not normal about him," says Gottfried. "Just a nice kid from a nice family."

In an act that amounted to his late-1960s rebellion, Tanner spurned Tennessee colleges to play for Stanford. The school had a modest tennis program that had seldom beaten UCLA or USC. But its young, upbeat coach, Dick Gould, talked of "building a tradition," and Tanner was seduced. In his first season he made the 1970 NCAA finals in both singles and doubles, and his magnetism helped Gould recruit bright prospects. Stanford would go on to win 17 NCAA titles and become the dynastic program in college tennis. "There's no question," says Gould, who retired last year, "Roscoe Tanner is the guy who put Stanford tennis on the map."

Tanner turned pro in 1972 and quickly made his presence known, reaching the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open and breaking into the top 20. His game was built around a lefthanded serve that he developed by swinging his racket at falling leaves in the Tennessee woods. Though he was not the biggest of players--6 feet and a solid 175 pounds--his serve was pure tracer fire, the product of a low ball toss and blinding racket speed. "Rocket Roscoe" once delivered a ball so hard that it snapped a net cable at the U.S. Open. Playing before racket technology went space-age, Tanner once had his serve clocked at a record 153 mph.

Snapping aces and charging the net, Tanner won the Australian Open in 1977 and, over a 12-year career, took 14 other titles and nearly 600 matches. He played on several U.S. Davis Cup squads, helping the team win the trophy in 1981. His finest hour, however, came at Wimbledon in '79. It was the first year the men's final was televised live in the U.S.--the inaugural Breakfast at Wimbledon--and the winsome kid from Tennessee played for the title against Bjorn Borg, the defending champ and 8-to-1 favorite. Impeccably dressed, Leonard Tanner watched nervously from the players' box as his son pushed Borg to five sets before losing a classic match.

Roscoe returned to the U.S. a full-fledged celebrity. "We did more deals for Roscoe than for a lot of guys who won bigger," says Donald Dell, Tanner's agent for much of his career. "Everyone wanted him." Racket, shoe and clothing endorsements rolled in, but his appeal wasn't limited to tennis products. Tanner appeared in TV commercials for Ivory soap, whose slogan, 99 44/100% pure, would later seem richly ironic. He was invited to appear on sitcoms and to judge the Miss USA contest. In a 1988 poll asking U.S. female fans to name their favorite male athletes, Tanner ranked fourth. Wayne Gretzky was fifth. Tanner won more than $1.7 million in prize money, but that figure was dwarfed by his off-court income.

Tanner was handsome and had a winning smile. He was polished but not slick, melding Stanford sophistication with Southern homespun modesty. Temperamentally he offered an appealing alternative to the fire of Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe and the ice of Borg. "There was a warmth there," says Sam McCleery, a former racket company executive and an old friend of Tanner's. "Roscoe's personality was a lot like his tennis. What you saw was what you got. He came straight at you, not a lot of spin or angles."

If he wasn't the pledge master of the tennis fraternity, he was a member in good standing. Even today, Tanner's contemporaries invariably use the same phrase--"great guy"--to describe him. And his integrity was considered unimpeachable. "Put it this way," says one former player. "Roscoe was Arthur Ashe's doubles partner, and Roscoe was the straighter arrow of the two."

Tanner's longtime coach, Dennis Ralston, recalls his protégé as attentive and tractable: "Never once did Roscoe question my authority. If he told me something, I knew that I could bank on it."

An injury to his left elbow forced Tanner out of tennis in 1984, but his playing career was winding down anyway. ESPN quickly signed him to comment on televised matches, surely just the beginning of a very successful transition to another phase of life.

"You look at the guy, and he sure seemed to have it made," says McEnroe, another Stanford alum. "Never in my wildest dreams did I see what was coming. Roscoe fooled everyone, I guess."

In retrospect, anyway, there were hints that Tanner was more complex than his all-American image suggested. His parents would fly across the country to watch him play at tournaments, and when they arrived he would cruelly ignore them. Ray Moore, one of Tanner's doubles partners, nicknamed him Short Fuse for his sudden, inexplicable explosions during practice, after which he would quickly revert to his good-natured form.

Five years after his retirement from the tour, Tanner ran a senior tennis event in Santa Barbara, Calif. The weekend was a success except for one thing: Tanner did not pay many of the players. He blamed it on a "sponsor screwup" and promised that the checks were forthcoming. The players had known him for years and took him at his word. The checks did arrive, but some took as long as seven months. Thinking back, former pro Dick Stockton, who played in the event and had first met Tanner in the juniors in 1961, says, "There was always an iffy side to Roscoe, things that didn't quite check out, but nothing serious enough for anyone to care."

Tanner was also, he now admits, a womanizer. He was never one to let his marriages get in the way of a good time. He met his first wife, Nancy Cook, at Stanford. They were married in 1973 and had a daughter, Lauren, in '81. But the marriage was a casualty of Tanner's infidelities--after he told her he wanted out Nancy took a pair of scissors and cut the crotch out of all of Roscoe's pants--and they divorced in '83. Not long after, Tanner met a vivacious nightclub manager in Santa Barbara named Charlotte Brady. They married within a few months, but it was only a matter of time, Tanner says, before he strayed again. "I was a smooth talker," he says. "I was good, really good, at saying whatever the other person wanted to hear."

It was the philandering that would cause the entire tapestry of his life to start unraveling. In 1993 Tanner was in New York City for a senior tennis event when he met Connie Romano, a striking woman from New Jersey. They spent a night together in his Manhattan hotel room. Tanner thought little of it--just another one-night stand on the road. (Romano says they met several times.) Then, a few months later, he got a call at the Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks, Calif., where he was the director of tennis. It was Romano phoning from New Jersey to say that she was pregnant. Tanner told her he didn't think it was possible.

A few months later the summonses regarding a lawsuit for child support started arriving. Tanner says he called Romano's lawyer to discuss a settlement, but the lawyer was asking for too much money. He consented to take a DNA test, which revealed a 99.5% chance that he was the father of Romano's baby, a girl born in 1994. Nevertheless, he denied paternity on grounds that the DNA test was not conclusive enough. "He told me that he had been drugged," says Charlotte Tanner. (Roscoe denies having said this but concedes that he might have claimed he had been inebriated.) "He said that as a celebrity he was a target [of gold diggers], and I believed him." Eager to avoid bad publicity, Tanner finally agreed to a $500,000 out-of-court settlement, which at the time he did not have the means of honoring. (He claims he intended to pay Romano from $1 million he expected to make on a deal that subsequently fell through.)

When Romano received no check from Tanner and he didn't return her phone calls or respond to her lawyer's threats, she contacted authorities. In March 1997 Tanner was arrested while attending a senior tennis event in Naples, Fla., and charged with failing to appear in a New Jersey court to answer for $40,000 in missed payments to Romano. With Leonard's help, Charlotte came up with the money, and Roscoe was released. He returned to the Naples tournament the next day and, sitting in a lounge, regaled his colleagues with stories of his night in jail. When he took the court, the fans gave him a standing ovation. "Roscoe has such a way with people," says Stockton. "It was inconceivable that this great, down-to-earth guy could have done anything wrong."

Three years earlier Roscoe, Charlotte and their two daughters--Tamara, then nine years old, and Anne, four--had moved from California to Tennessee. They purchased 130 acres in the woods outside Chattanooga, which they were going to transform into the Tanner Tennis Lodge. The architectural renderings called for 140 hotel rooms, a spa, a lake stocked with fish and an upscale restaurant. Their dream was to parlay the success of the lodge into a chain of tennis resorts.

In the months after Tanner's '97 arrest, however, plans for the lodge fell behind schedule, and investors pulled out. The bank foreclosed on the property. Tanner's endorsement deals had petered out long ago, as had the lucrative pro-am appearances. In 1998 he filed for bankruptcy. Tanner turned to his pals in the tennis world for loans. "I'd say there were 25 guys Roscoe tried to borrow from," says Moore, his old doubles partner. Several players--including Borg, Tanner's opponent in that memorable Wimbledon final--stepped up, lending Tanner a total in excess of $100,000. At least Borg thought he was lending the money. When no repayment was made, his representatives pursued Tanner. Finally a deal was brokered: A portion of Tanner's earnings at senior events would be deducted to make good on the debt.

As he sank deeper into debt, Tanner was spinning an ever-widening web of lies to his wife and daughters. He had taken a teaching pro job in Florida and was seldom home. Charlotte says that on Tamara's 11th birthday, in 1996, Roscoe called to say he couldn't fly home to Tennessee due to work. Charlotte later found credit card receipts indicating that he had been in the Cayman Islands that day.

Charlotte and Roscoe were divorced in December 2000. By that time Roscoe and Margaret Barna had already had a "ceremony of commitment" in Hawaii. (Roscoe paid their bill at the Hilton Waikoloa Village with a check that bounced.) The divorce settlement called for him to pay Charlotte $7,000 a month in child support for Tamara and Anne. The checks seldom came, and when they did they were for far less than the agreed-upon amount. Charlotte filed for bankruptcy in the spring of 2001, and she and her daughters had to live apart for four months; Charlotte's credit rating was so bad that she couldn't rent an apartment. She took to selling Roscoe's tennis hardware to pay bills. The 1977 Australian Open trophy fetched $10,000, less a 15% commission. The 1981 Davis Cup trophy went for only $1,900.

In May 2001 Tanner was arrested on court during another senior event, outside Atlanta, because he was delinquent in his payments to Charlotte. He spent a night in jail for "willful criminal contempt of court" and was released after paying $8,000. Two months later another warrant was issued for him on the same charge, though he was not arrested on it.

By then Tanner had vowed to friends that he was "starting a new life." He and Margaret had relocated to Florida's Gulf Coast, where he took a job as tennis pro at the Treasure Island Tennis and Yacht Club, near St. Petersburg. The pay was good, the housing was cheap, and he still believed he could somehow make a go of the Tanner Tennis Villages. He had also been seduced by another beauty with a sleek figure--this one 32-feet long.

Tanner ogled the Wellcraft yacht, priced at $39,000, and envisioned himself cruising the gulf with Margaret. In the summer of 2000 he gave the broker, Gene Gammon, a $3,000 deposit, and then he dropped off a check for $35,595--which, Tanner claims, he expected would clear after a tennis-related deal he was working on in Atlanta came through. The deal didn't pan out. "Here was the big star," says Gammon. "I never thought he couldn't afford it."

Gammon was told by his bank that the check had cleared. He gave Tanner title to Nora's Cruisin' and paid the manufacturer. Then he learned that, in fact, his bank had made a mistake. Tanner's check had bounced. When he pursued Tanner, he discovered a problem: Tanner had already used the boat as collateral to secure a $10,000 loan from a joint in a strip mall that charged 10% interest per month. Not only was Gammon out the money, but the mall lenders now superseded him as creditors.

Tanner offered to pay Gammon from his ATP pension, which would begin paying him $880 a month in January 2001, the year Tanner would turn 50. Gammon declined. Then, he says, Tanner showed him a receipt indicating that he had paid the money he owed to court authorities. (Tanner denies this.) When Gammon followed up, he says, he found that the receipt was not authentic. Gammon then learned that Tanner had taken a leave from his job at Treasure Island. Having taken a hit of more than $35,000, Gammon had to sell stocks he owned and was eventually forced to sell his brokerage business.

"The guy came in here with a smile," says Gammon, now a broker for another company, "and he damn near ruined me."

There was one man who could make Roscoe's debts disappear and ease a lot of the heartache he had caused. Leonard Tanner had been devastated when his wife died of a heart attack in 1983. But he soldiered on, remarrying and leaving his law practice to become CEO of a tire company. Through it all he remained a pillar of Chattanooga society and a doting father. In 1990 Roscoe was inducted into a regional tennis hall of fame in Atlanta, and he asked his father to give the presenting speech. Leonard delivered a 45-minute filibuster lauding his only son. "Leonard," says Dell, "always thought Roscoe walked on water."

When Roscoe first started to court trouble, Leonard came to the rescue, giving him money and working with Chattanooga lawyers and judges to get him off the hook. But eventually Leonard cut his prodigal son loose. He would put some money in the prison commissary fund so Roscoe could buy a razor or a toothbrush, but that was the extent of his contribution. There were times when Roscoe was so destitute that he could afford neither bail nor a lawyer. He got no help from Pop.

Asked about his father, Roscoe loses his smile, and an awkward silence ensues. "It's tough," he says. "He felt that he bailed me out and it didn't stop the problems, and it was time for me to face things myself."

Leonard is 89 now, and though he recently had to give up his tennis, he still cuts a dignified, lawyerly figure. And he sticks by his decision. "There came a time when I thought maybe I was doing Roscoe a disservice by trying to handle everything," he says. "He made an error. I let him handle the error, and I believe it has worked out. I think the unfortunate things he suffered have worked to his advantage. He's a wonderful boy, you know."

It's a surreal narrative any way you slice it. But it would make a lot more sense if Tanner had an obvious vice. Innumerable athletes have descended into darkness because of drug habits, but Tanner says that though he dabbled in cocaine after retiring from the men's tour, he never had a drug problem--a claim supported even by those who have the biggest bones to pick with him. Other athletes have gambled away their millions, but no one can recall Tanner so much as joining a card game. Greed wasn't his motivation, either. The stakes involved in Tanner's schemes were not stunningly high.

Finding plausible explanations for Tanner's behavior has become something of a parlor game in tennis circles. Bill Scanlon, a contemporary of Tanner's on the men's tour, wonders whether Tanner isn't simply a spoiled kid who panicked when the money ran out. Others surmise that there is an alter ego that Tanner successfully suppressed during his playing career. "Maybe it's a Three Faces of Eve thing," says Ralston, his old coach. "The Roscoe Tanner I knew not taking care of his kids? That blows me away." Charlotte Tanner thinks that the death of her ex-husband's mother triggered some deep psychological reaction.

Provided a summary of Tanner's behavior, a prominent sports psychologist says without hesitating, "Sounds like a sociopath--definitely some pathology." Tanner says he periodically sought counseling to help him deal with his financial and family problems ("Frankly," he says, "it didn't help") but has never been given a psychological diagnosis.

He has his own thoughts on his case. "My vice was selfishness," he says, "but I had an amazing ability to compartmentalize. Things would be eating at me, so much that I had this recurring dream that my body was filled with worms. But I could block it out. I'd just brush people and problems and responsibilities to the side. That's what tennis players do, right? They block out distractions."

He might be on to something. It's become an article of faith that sports build character, that they teach universal virtues. What if that's not always the case? What if the very traits that make some athletes successful get lost in translation when they are applied to life?

Besides that pump-action serve, Tanner's greatest asset as a player was his consistency. He never went through a prolonged slump. He would lose in the first round one week and then win the next tournament. "When I'd lose, I'd put it out of my mind," he says. "Other guys would lose and analyze what they did wrong. My attitude was, I'll just move on to the next match." When the summonses arrived and the past-due notices came and investors called asking what had happened to their money, Tanner treated them as distractions. Block them out and they'll go away.

Few athletes were more positive than Tanner. "Roscoe didn't see his glass as half full, he saw it as overflowing," says former U.S. Open champion Stan Smith, a contemporary of Tanner's who remains in touch with him. "He had supreme confidence. He always thought he was going to win."

The pie-in-the-sky business ventures? The promises to repay money he didn't have? The loan at 10% monthly interest? "It was totally flawed thinking," Tanner says, "but I honestly thought that somehow, some way, I was going to pull it off."

Tanner had the self-absorption that is all but required for success in individual sports. Gould, the Stanford coach, recalls congratulating Tanner on being one of the three best college players in the country. Who are the others, Tanner asked, dumbfounded that he might have equals. "Well, Roscoe," Gould replied, "one of them is that kid at UCLA, Jimmy Connors." Maybe that was the same characteristic that enabled him to enter a kind of moral isolation chamber and cheat on his spouses and abandon his kids and put a boat dealer out of business.

"I don't blame tennis," says Tanner. "I did this to myself. I'm not making excuses. But as an athlete you can get in some habits, and sometimes it takes a sledgehammer to break them."

Gene Gammon, the duped boat dealer, didn't give a damn who Tanner had been in a previous life. He wanted his money. Doggedly he followed Tanner on the Internet, and in the spring of 2003 his name appeared in the box score of a club tennis event in Germany.

Germany? Tanner had hightailed it across the Pond with Margaret and her daughters. (He claims it had nothing to do with his legal and financial problems. "We just wanted a new experience," he says, "and senior tennis pays better over there.") He coached a struggling British pro, gave some lessons in France, played for a club team in Germany. Gammon alerted sportswriters in Europe, who called authorities in Florida to ask about Tanner's situation and revealed his whereabouts. Tanner was arrested on an extradition order and taken to a jail in the Black Forest town of Karlsruhe.

He has few fond recollections of his six weeks in a German jail cell. The food was so vile that he often ate with his eyes closed. Walls were covered with anti-American graffiti. Inmates were permitted only two showers a week. And he feared that another prisoner would try to make a name for himself by slipping a knife into the gut of the American.

There was, however, one amenity. The televisions in the cells received more than 30 channels. One Sunday morning Tanner flipped to a broadcast of the Reverend Robert Schuller's Hour of Power. As Schuller read from Philippians, Tanner found it in his Bible and followed along: Rejoice in the Lord always. Rejoice, let your gentleness be evident to all! The Lord is near. Don't be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to the Lord.

Tanner was rapt. He mulled over the passage and then thought about the train wreck that was his life. As he later put it to a friend, "I knew I was tired of going Roscoe's way. I'd either spent, lost or signed over all of my money. But that wasn't enough: I had ripped off friends, innocent acquaintances and creditors on two continents. I had cheated on two wives and failed miserably as a father."

He knelt beside his bed and prayed. Prayed that he would repent. Prayed that he would find peace. And while he was at it, he prayed that the Lord would take care of the rash he had had on his wrist for years. A few days later he took a shower. When he dried off, he noticed that the rash was gone. A few days after that a guard told him that he had been extradited to the U.S.

Unable to scrounge up bail money, Tanner spent 17 weeks in the rough Pinellas County, Fla., jail, where the inmates, most of them black, jokingly nicknamed him Deejay because he couldn't rap. In November 2003 Tanner pleaded guilty to grand theft and was sentenced to probation until he makes good on his debt to Gammon. (The current payment plan calls for Tanner to fork over $102,000 in capital and interest over 10 years. To do that, he signed over to Gammon his ATP pension payments beginning in January 2006.) Then he served five months in a county jail in Somerset, N.J., for failure to make payments due to Romano. He claims that at times he felt it was good for him to be locked up. He had been reading the Bible and helping other inmates learn to read. He even found something redeeming about his prison job cleaning toilets.

After Tanner was released, on April 19, he stayed with friends and relatives in various places--Washington, D.C., Florida, Georgia--but eventually California beckoned. In the state for court appearances, he shuttled along the corridor between L.A. and San Diego, crashing with assorted friends from Stanford and the tennis caravan--10 days in this vacant guesthouse, a week in that basement. Eventually he crossed paths with Cecil Spearman, a silver-haired former Marine who played tennis at Duke in the 1950s, made a killing in business and runs three upscale tennis clubs in Orange County. Spearman asked a few dozen members what they'd think if he hired Tanner. The responses were "overwhelmingly positive," he says, so he called Tanner to his office at the Laguna Niguel Racket Club, explained that there would be no second chances and offered him a job giving lessons at $65 an hour. Tanner jumped at it.

Isn't California where everyone gets a fresh start? And his daughters Lauren, Tamara and Anne were all living in the L.A. area. Maybe he could reconnect with them.

Slowly, the clouds are lifting. He's worked out some payment plans to start chipping away at his debts, which total more than $400,000. He plans to play doubles in a few upcoming senior events. He's continued reading his Bible and attending church, and he says he's working on his autobiography. He's surrounded himself with an AA-style "accountability team" to make sure he doesn't waver in his resolve. In a series of interviews with SI, he is nothing if not contrite about his past. He's begun to repair his relationship with Leonard, whom he calls on the telephone. And he's on good terms again with Lauren, a 22-year-old senior at Vanderbilt. "My dad never had to grow up until age 50," she says. "If I didn't see a major change, he wouldn't be back in my life."

In October, Margaret arrived with her daughters, vowing to give Roscoe a last shot. Immediately she took over the practical details of his life, making the car payments on their Ford Explorer and seeing that other bills get paid on time.

By all accounts it's worked well. What hacker wouldn't want to take pointers from a serving demon who nearly won Wimbledon? James Dolan, the New York Knicks' owner, recently took five lessons from Tanner. Every week more of his time is booked. "The members think the world of Roscoe," says Spearman. "He's a great guy, a great teacher. Boy, he can really carry on and tell a million stories."

Everyone likes a happy ending. This saga may get one, but we're not there yet. Tanner still hasn't gotten together with Tamara and Anne, who live a few miles from him but remain wounded by Dad's disappearing act and the welter of excuses he gave. Tanner claims that Charlotte is standing between him and his daughters, but she points out that Tamara is in college and not subject to her control. "I still can't figure him out, just leaving us and never coming back," says Tamara, a thoughtful, earnest sophomore at Loyola Marymount, where she got a full ride to play tennis. "Two plus two doesn't equal four with him." Last month Tanner sought a reduction of his alimony and child support obligation to Tamara and Anne.

What's more, in September, Tanner was arrested at a doughnut shop in Laguna Niguel after missing a scheduled New Jersey court appearance in the Romano matter. (He was released and appeared in court in early September.) "It's always the same thing with that guy," says Bob Lang, a Somerset County, N.J., prosecutor. "He agrees to meet obligations, he fails to meet them and then he disappears."

Nor does Roscoe have a relationship with his 10-year-old daughter by Romano. "He has done so much damage to that girl," says Romano, now an artist living in New Jersey. "She asked him for a photograph because she wanted to draw her father. Nothing. He promised to give her a tennis lesson. Nothing. He promised her a teddy bear. Nothing. As far as I'm concerned, he's a loser."

And if Tanner hasn't been run out from the tennis fraternity, he is on something akin to double secret probation. The unpaid loans from many of his former colleagues are part of it. But opinion in the seniors' locker room really shifted when evidence mounted that Tanner was neglecting his kids. "We like the guy, we want to see him get his life together, but we also want to see him take care of his family," says Stockton, whose wife, Liz, remains friendly with Charlotte Tanner. "The whole thing makes all of us who have known him sick."

Tanner knows that he has a lot of accounting to do, that not all of his debts are financial ones. But he didn't hit rock bottom all at once, and he thinks his climb back will be gradual, too. "People always say, 'It's day by day,' but really that's what it is with me. There was so much cloudy thinking, so many decisions that any sane person could see were crazy. I went to a pretty good school. I was supposed to be pretty intelligent. Look at me now: I have no money, no credit. But you know what? I'm happier now than I ever was in my tennis career. When I won the Australian Open, I was happy for about 10 minutes. There are not those empty spots now. Do I know where this is all going? No. But I know this: I'm through running."

These days you can catch Tanner in Laguna Niguel, usually on one of the eight courts at Spearman's Tennis Club at Monarch Beach, a swank stucco complex where the air is perfumed by breezes from the nearby Pacific. A sheen of sweat on his forehead, Tanner wields a scarlet Wilson racket and tells housewives, kids, seniors--whoever comes through the door--to bend their knees for that volley or shorten that backswing or follow through by pointing at the target. He's charming and energetic, and if he warms up, he can still crank a 120-mph serve.

Late one afternoon in October, as palms cast long shadows across the court, Tanner is giving a private lesson to his prize student, Stefan Simikic, a 15-year-old with big-time potential. They play a series of tiebreakers. At one point Tanner grooves a serve that recalls the mop-haired pro from Tennessee. Simikic sticks a return back, and the two players, a Wimbledon finalist and a Wimbledon hopeful, rally for a dozen strokes. Simikic bats the ball to the middle of the court, and Tanner is in prime position to chip and charge. But he dumps an easy forehand into the net.

"You had me right where you wanted me!" the kid says, laughing. Tanner, too, laughs at his error. He picks up the ball, stuffs it in his pocket and retreats to the baseline to play the next point, at once in plain view and obscured by shadows. ■

It's hard to imagine a less likely candidate than Roscoe to make an absolute MESS OF THINGS.
"I was a smooth talker," Tanner says. "I was good at saying what the other person WANTED TO HEAR."
Back at the tournament the day after his hearing, he regaled players with stories of HIS NIGHT IN JAIL.
"It's tough," Roscoe says of his rift with Leonard. "He felt it was time for me to FACE THINGS MYSELF."
Told he was one of the three best college players, Tanner was dumbfounded that he MIGHT HAVE EQUALS.
In prison he read the Bible and even found something redeeming in his job CLEANING TOILETS.
"Look at me now," he says. "I have no money, no credit. But I'm happier than I was IN MY TENNIS CAREER."
COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by David StrickCOLOR PHOTOLEO MASON/ACTION PLUS/ICON SMI Tanner got rich off his cannonball serve and matinee-idol looks.COLOR PHOTODAVID STRICK Charlotte has struggled to support her daughters by Roscoe.COLOR PHOTOKENNY PANG/AP Charles Waldron represented Tanner after his arrest in 1997.B/W PHOTO©2004 REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION FROM THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION B/W PHOTOREPRINTED WITH PERMISSION FROM THE CHATTANOOGA TIMES FREE PRESS B/W PHOTOCOLOR PHOTOCOURTESY OF CHARLOTTE TANNER Leonard (with Roscoe and Anne) was once his son's biggest booster.B/W PHOTOSTANFORD UNIVERSITY At Stanford, Tanner helped create a national tennis power.COLOR PHOTOGETTY IMAGESCOLOR PHOTODAVID STRICK These days Tanner teaches tennis in Southern California.