Break Point

Break Point By Steve Flink, 10/20/2005

Photo by Michael Baz

Roscoe Tanner’s booming serve brought him on-court success, but since retiring from tennis, he has repeatedly found it difficult to get his back from the wall.  Dick Stockton has known Roscoe Tanner since they were juniors in the early 1960s. They played doubles together in the ‘70s on the pro tour, represented the United States in Davis Cup competition, carried themselves with distinction as men who reached the exalted status of the world’s Top 10 as singles players during their salad days. They have shared a long history in the same field, even joining forces four years ago in the senior event at Wimbledon. But when Stockton spotted Tanner in the distance walking down a Manhattan street one night during the 2005 U.S. Open, he caught himself in his tracks.

Dick Stockton has known Roscoe Tanner since they were juniors in the early 1960s. They played doubles together in the ‘70s on the pro tour, represented the United States in Davis Cup competition, carried themselves with distinction as men who reached the exalted status of the world’s Top 10 as singles players during their salad days. They have shared a long history in the same field, even joining forces four years ago in the senior event at Wimbledon. But when Stockton spotted Tanner in the distance walking down a Manhattan street one night during the 2005 U.S. Open, he caught himself in his tracks.

As Stockton recollects of a man he once admired immensely as a friend, rival and colleague, “I saw this person about 30 yards in front of me on 52nd Street with the same hair and build, and I knew it had to be Roscoe. But I just didn’t go up and say hello because I can’t believe what has happened to him. He just continues to get himself in trouble and continues to fool people and it doesn’t seem to change. You keep hearing that there is another warrant out for his arrest. It is one of the saddest stories ever in tennis for a guy who once was so successful and popular, a guy everybody thought could hang the moon.”

It has indeed been a jarring journey over the last couple of decades for Tanner, the formidable southpaw with one of the biggest serves and brightest dispositions among players of his era. He won the Australian Open in 1977, twice made it to the penultimate round of the U.S. Open, and was one set away from winning Wimbledon in 1979 before bowing to Bjorn Borg in a celebrated final round skirmish. After he retired in 1984, however, the rougher battles began. He had gone through a bitter divorce with his first wife before he put the racquet down. Following retirement, he married again; this one ended acrimoniously in 2000 after 15 years. Along the way, in 1993, he fathered a girl, Omega, out of wedlock with Connie Romano, an artist now who was working for an escort service at the time. Four years later, he was arrested and jailed for the first time, taken in by the police during a senior tournament in Naples, Fla., after not showing up for a New Jersey court date relating to child support he neglected to pay Romano. The two had an out-of-court settlement that, ostensibly in lieu of regular child support payments, was to provide her a one- time fee of $500,000 in exchange for her continuing silence.

The pattern of astounding misjudgments, irresponsibility and self-deception continued. There were more arrests later in the ‘90s for similar offenses, and then in 2001, he was locked up again at another senior event in Atlanta for failing to come through with payments to his second wife, Charlotte, with whom he had two daughters. He was deep into debt and did not keep up with his obligatory $7,000 a month payments to his ex-wife. She was forced to declare bankruptcy and, to this day, is struggling mightily to make ends meet and support her girls, who are now ages 15 and 20. The older one, Tamara, has been fortunate to get a tennis scholarship to Loyola Marymount University. Meanwhile, in the summer of 2000, Tanner purchased a $39,000 yacht in Florida from a man named Gene Gammon with a $3,000 deposit followed by a check for $35,595, but the check bounced and Tanner could not find a suitable way to pay back the money. Eventually, three years later, Gammon, who had to sell his brokerage business, managed to track Tanner down in Germany, where he was living with his third wife, Margaret, and her two daughters while playing senior and club events in that country. Tanner was arrested on an extradition order. He was placed behind bars on June 18, 2003 in Karlsruhe, Germany, and later transferred to jails in Tampa, Fla., and Somerset County, N.J., before his release on April 19, 2004.

The world wondered why Tanner’s affluent father did not spare his son the anguish of this particularly humiliating jail sentence, but by then, Leonard Tanner (now 90 and apparently reconciled with Roscoe) was fed up with the failures and deceit and felt Roscoe had to stand on his own two feet. Asked how he felt about his father not stepping in, Tanner replies, “We agreed on that. One thing that is a common belief everywhere since my dad is fairly well off [is that he would pay for it]. But hey, this was not his mistake; it was mine.”

Roscoe kept a diary during that period and collaborated with writer Mike Yorkey to write a book called, “Double Fault: My Rise and Fall, and My Road Back,” which was published earlier this year. In those pages, Tanner often seems humbled, candid, charming and appealingly self-critical. But, conversely, he comes across too often as a man willing to disparage the reputations of his ex-wives while letting himself too easily off the hook for his infidelities, frailties and inconsistencies. Asked now why he wrote the book, Tanner replies, “It was a multitude of things. When I was in jail, I was thinking about all the things I had been blessed with and given, and wondered: ‘How did I end up in this spot?’ So this was something I felt obliged to tell, as to how you can mess up from being selfish and doing things the wrong way. I also wanted to talk about what I had learned and how I felt about my faith. I had been looking for different things to make me happy before and all of it is pretty fleeting. When I was playing professional tennis, I had a certain amount of happiness, like when I won the Australian Open. But you are only happy for a little while and then you have to play again. And I realized the only thing that is consistent and long-lasting in life is your faith in God.”

Dennis Ralston coached Tanner in his heyday and was by his side when Tanner reached the final of Wimbledon in 1979 and then upended Borg to make the semifinals of the U.S. Open later that summer. Ralston went through a religious conversion of his own in 1972 and no one who knows him well has ever questioned the authenticity of his convictions. Is Tanner’s apparent transformation a positive thing or could it be a crutch? Ralston replies, “Either one could be true. I find it hard to believe — and everybody has their own personal struggles with their faith and following what they are supposed to do — but from what I am hearing, it could be more of a cover with Roscoe in the sense that he could be using his religion to make things OK when maybe that is not so. I hope I am wrong.”

Tanner sounds genuine when he talks about his religious conversion and the epiphany he had when he watched a CNBC program in his German cell called, “Hour of Power,” hosted by the Reverend Robert Schuller from California. He believes the exposure to that show and what it represented was a transformational moment in his life. He began reading the Bible and, after some prayers, almost miraculously a skin rash he had endured for five years disappeared. Yet, since he got out of jail 18 months ago, Tanner has not altered many of his old bad habits. In June of 2004, he was hired to work as a teaching professional at three California clubs owned by Cecil Spearman in Orange County. As Spearman recalls, “When I met with Roscoe and asked him why he wanted to live in California, he told me he had three daughters living there [one from his first marriage to Nancy Cook, the two others from his second marriage to Charlotte] and he wanted to get to know them better and reunite with them. We are very family-oriented, with my three sons working for me and our five grandkids nearby. So that was the deciding factor in my hiring him.”

Spearman was exhilarated by Tanner’s skills and effusiveness as a teacher on the court, saying “He has no equal in running a clinic for a group of tennis players. They absolutely love him. “Everything seemed to be working out well until about four months ago, in early June. Tanner took a job teaching tennis back in his home state, in Chattanooga, Tenn., for a week. He had discussed with Spearman doing that and then leaving for Europe to pursue some other opportunities. But he said he would return in August. Spearman was fine with that. Right around that time, trouble struck again. “Word then came to us,” recalls Spearman, “that there was a warrant out for Roscoe’s arrest for non-payment of child support [for his daughters with Charlotte Tanner]. Two or three of our members commented that they had seen that there was a warrant or warrants out for his arrest on the Orange County sheriff’s department web site. I told Roscoe he had to work that out and he told me he would.” The warrant was issued because Tanner had missed a court hearing for one of many unfulfilled payments to Charlotte Tanner for child support, but he avoided another potential jail sentence by paying $6,000 to deal with that dilemma — at least temporarily.

Meanwhile, Spearman had procured a car for Tanner to use to drive from club to club for his work at the various clubs. But he did not know that Tanner was going to take the car cross country from California to Chattanooga. When Spearman set Tanner up with the car, he made a deal with a friend who is a sales manager at a Ford dealership, guaranteeing the loan on the car and agreeing to make any payments Tanner could not meet. The car was put under Tanner’s name, but Spearman had his name on the title. “I went into the loan guarantee with my eyes wide open,” says Spearman, “and I knew that Roscoe had no credit whatsoever. I thought it would be simple enough for Roscoe to get the payments made, but it turned out not to be. My company made six of nine payments for Roscoe. That car has cost me between $10,000 and $15,000. I wanted Roscoe to trade the car and he gave me the name of a company in Georgia that he was going to trade it to, but he never brought it into that place as he said he would. Roscoe would always tell me what I wanted to hear. He doesn’t always tell you all the facts. .My credit was wrecked. As we talk, the car is sitting in Tennessee and has been repossessed. This has been a nightmare.”

Ipearman and his family decided during the summer that they did not want Tanner to continue working for them, but he never actually fired him. Through their conversations, both men seemed to realize it was essential for Tanner to move on. Tanner did just that, securing a job last month with Paul Annacone’s brother Steve at the Smoky Mountain Tennis Academy in Knoxville, Tenn. Annacone was well aware of Tanner’s history of difficulties with the law, but felt he deserved a chance to work for the academy as long as he stays out of trouble. Tanner gives lessons for $50 an hour and keeps a reasonable percentage of that fee, with the rest going back to the academy. As Tanner says, “I am just one of the pros.” Asked how concerned he is about the range of issues surrounding Tanner, Steve Annacone responds, “I am pretty concerned. I just decided I was going to give him a chance and see what happens and not put myself in a situation where some of the things that have happened can happen at our place. If things work out and he does well and gets his feet back on the ground, I feel like there are a lot of things I can do to utilize him. But obviously he has got to get his act together to get to do some of these things, like working with players we might get who are good enough to play on the pro tour or putting on exhibitions to help give publicity to the academy. But I feel there are so many up sides to the whole thing. He has assured me he wants to get back on the right track.” Having said that, Annacone knows he is sticking his neck out in employing Tanner. “It is a very risky thing because you don’t want your name to be tarnished because of someone else’s actions. I don’t know if you can ever be too careful with situations like this one. I think it could be a huge asset for us to have somebody like that, but there is always the other side. It is easy to be optimistic and I know a lot of other people have given him chances, and from what I have heard, he hasn’t come through very well with people who were supposedly trying to help him. I am not going to try to rationalize any of the stuff that has happened to him, but I believe you have to forgive people and have confidence in them to go in the right direction. So we have set up rules where we meet once a week and sit down and talk for 30 to 45 minutes. I am not willing to put up with anything, and I don’t think there can be any tolerance, really. But I am going to try to be positive and hope things work out for him.”The key to Tanner’s future with Annacone and in the larger world outside will be his ability to overcome his financial woes and to deal with any ventures with complete candor from this point on. He has an “Accountability Group,” which includes Stan Smith (who wrote the foreword for Tanner’s book), backing him up by helping him with his expenses, making loans to enable Tanner to pay off debts, setting up a system to make payments in an orderly fashion. Tanner himself operates strictly on cash and has no credit cards. He said recently that Gene Gammon would finally be paid back for the yacht and, presumably, other debts of significance will be handled. But the biggest obstacle between Tanner and stability will inevitably be the ongoing battle between himself and Charlotte Tanner over securing money for their daughters. Tanner argues that Charlotte is asking for more than he can deliver. He asserts, “She thinks she deserves like half a million dollars … and that is why we are still fighting in this divorce. I don’t have half a million dollars so I don’t know how she is going to get it. We have got to reach some kind of settlement. .I am doing all I can. You can’t do more than what you have. In the divorce decree, I agreed to a bunch of things and signed some things I should not have signed. I was promising things on the basis of things we thought were going to happen. All I had to do was put a clause in there saying, ‘If this happens, I will pay this,’ but I didn’t do that. That is my fault and that is what I am faced with.”

Charlotte Tanner strongly denies she is asking for that much money. She knows her ex-husband is hard pressed to find the $7,000 a month that goes to herself and her daughters and realizes that what he owes in arrears — around $400,000 — is another hard figure for Tanner to match. She would settle for a reasonable compromise and for a significant reduction in Roscoe’s monthly fees. A court date was set up this summer to find a reasonable solution. But he did not show up. She is exasperated by the feeling that he has turned his back on the two daughters they had together while Roscoe moves forward with his new family alongside Margaret Tanner, who is expecting another child. Says Charlotte Tanner, who is currently in the nutrition business, “Roscoe doesn’t support his children, and it all comes down to me and my girls. He doesn’t want the world to know that what he has really done is to torment me and my family and I have been humiliated. He may say he was humiliated in jail, but I have had to deal with real life here. He has been a ’Deadbeat Dad’ with our girls. Those kids have been devastated by their father abandoning them and still abandoning them.”

Roscoe responds, “I really miss my daughters and I am very sorry that these financial things are being used to keep us apart.”

Is that really so? Cecil Spearman, who, despite everything, stresses he did not part on bad terms with Tanner and still has many kind things to say about him, saw no evidence of Roscoe making the effort he said he would to repair the wounds with his daughters. As Spearman says, “Unfortunately, he did not follow through on redeveloping his relationship with his two charming daughters, which I think he regrets and I certainly think he should have done. But he did not have any contact with them at all while he was working for us, and his two daughters came in to see me while we were trying to get this car thing straightened out and they said they had no contact whatsoever with him, except when he called the older daughter on Father’s Day when he was in Texas somewhere at the time. She said that was the only contact she had with him the entire time he was in Orange County.”

Why his “Accountability Group” has not stepped in to find a resolution on this crucial family matter is hard to comprehend. They can’t take complete control of Tanner’s life, but he seems to have given them great authority to guide him in the right direction with his payments. And what payments matter more than those for two kids who, at 15 and 20, are moving through crucial stages in their evolution? It is mystifying in many ways trying to figure out why he would risk going to jail again when he remembers so clearly being allowed only two showers a week in the German cell and eating McDonald’s food with his hands cuffed while doing time in the United States. As Stockton laments, “Roscoe’s first responsibility has to be to find a way to help his daughters out, and I don’t think he has done it. In fact, I know he hasn’t done it. I have not read his book, but I am sure he says in there that he has been in trouble but now he has found God. And my feeling is, ’OK, you found God, but what about your girls? You haven’t found anything for them and God is not going to do it.’ I just don’t know how Charlotte and the girls are surviving.”

There are a whole lot of people in the tennis world who have given up on Roscoe Tanner, but he retains some friends of long standing who still believe in him enough to help however they can. Chico Hagey played on the Stanford University tennis team with Tanner at the start of the ’70s and has known him even longer. He took an active role finding Tanner good legal representation in the period leading up to when Roscoe was getting out of jail in spring 2004. Hagey says, “Roscoe is a good guy, and I think one possible explanation for some of the problems is he just doesn’t understand money.”

Maybe Tanner never fully understood himself and how he came off to others. Donald Dell, who represented him for most of his career, reflects, “I liked Roscoe. He is smart and very capable. So it is mystifying to me what happened to him and the repetitive nature of it. But I would say you never really got through to the heart and soul of Roscoe Tanner — at least I didn’t, and I worked with him for 10 years. But I sure hope he has learned from everything and that he comes out of this OK because he has a long life ahead of him. I hope he will come out of this better as a person, and I have a feeling he will.”

Stan Smith adds, “It was like Roscoe was trying to fool himself before and he was running away from things at times, but he has to face up to the issues now and compete like he would in a match. It is going to be his hardest match ever to get back to normalcy, but he is in a pretty good situation now with people trying to help and make him accountable for his actions. He is happy that his wife (Margaret) is pregnant with his child and he is adopting her girls. So some good things have been happening for him. “Nevertheless, Tanner knows full well that he will have an arduous path ahead after more than a decade of serious stress. Are there any warning signals for young tennis players when they examine his plight? Tanner answers, “Oh yeah. You think as a star or whatever that you are sort of bulletproof. And one of the things that you start becoming is selfish in the pursuit of whatever you think makes you happy. And that is not so bad on the surface, but if you start pushing it and going after it and become stubborn about it, you can step over the line real easy. And each time you step over the line it gets easier to do it again.”

“Now I am taking my life one step at a time. I am certainly not saying by any means that I am perfect now, and I don’t think I ever will be. But I am surrounded by fantastic people. I am going to stay with tennis, and my priorities are to stay with Steve Annacone’s academy and help any way I can there and see where it leads. As far as I am concerned, I might even spend the rest of my career at Steve’s academy. And I will try to keep playing. Next year, I will be eligible for the 55s and I will be the young kid in the group; so I am looking forward to that and I will play some nationals in that division, depending on my schedule.”

Senior correspondent Steve Flink has covered the entire arc of Roscoe Tanner’s career from the Grand Slam tournament highs to the current, most regrettable, lows.

Original article appeared in Tennis Week Magazine, Issue:  October 20, 2005.