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Roscoe Tanner’s Long String of Unforced Errors

Times Staff Writer

The man who once wielded the fastest serve in professional tennis, who had won the Australian Open in 1977, was on his way to giving a tennis lesson that would pay him $75, not much more than he had to his name.

To get there, he borrowed a friend’s beat-up 1986 Toyota Tercel, then turned the wrong way onto a one-way street.

That’s how it’s been lately for Roscoe Tanner -- a bunch of wrong turns. The man who once showed off his booming serve for the Reagans on the White House courts now is struggling day to day.

He reached the pinnacle of his career in 1979, when he lost the Wimbledon championship match in five sets to Bjorn Borg. Over his 15-year career, he won 16 singles titles, 13 doubles titles and had earnings of nearly $2 million.

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But two years after retiring with an elbow injury, Tanner had blown nearly all of it -- dumping some of it into houses he couldn’t afford and more on a nasty divorce from his first wife, Nancy.

Another failed marriage led to child-support payments he couldn’t make, and a one-night stand with a New Jersey woman he’d met through an escort service resulted in a $500,000 paternity suit.

It got worse. He bought a yacht with a worthless check -- and landed in prison.

Now Tanner, 53, says he’s baring his soul -- and the error of his ways -- in a new autobiography that reads like a guidebook on how not to live.

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“I felt it was important to write, so that perhaps other people may not make the same mistakes I made,” Tanner said in a recent interview. “I also wanted to tell people that when you back up, take the time and put your trust in Jesus, things can be great.”

But his life -- in recent years in and out of Southern California -- is far from great. Facing nearly $400,000 in disputed payments from his second divorce and still paying $500 a month in child support for the 11-year-old girl he fathered out of wedlock, as well as $35,500 for the yacht, Tanner’s days of wild spending are long gone. He is paying off his bills a nickel at a time as a tennis instructor.

He benefits from an engaging personality, a circle of friends willing to help, and, he says, newfound perspective and faith that give him hope amid the turmoil.

His autobiography, “Double Fault: My Rise and Fall, and My Road Back,” came out last month. Tanner signed books at the U.S. Open in New York, where he once plied his trade with some of the greats of the game -- Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Borg.

Encouraged by friends, he also decided to direct a network of tennis academies for inner-city youngsters.

But, true to form, he’s been sidetracked.

After finishing the book nine months ago with co-author Mike Yorkey, he lost a job as a tennis instructor in Laguna Niguel, then drove the tennis club owner’s car across the country without permission. There also was a warrant out for his arrest signed by an Orange County Superior Court judge for missing a child-support hearing and failing to make a payment to his second wife, Charlotte.

The warrant was canceled when Tanner paid $6,000 and offered 50% of the proceeds from his book to Tamara, 20, and Anne, 15, his daughters with Charlotte.

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But word of the warrant had reached Cecil Spearman, who had hired Tanner a year ago to teach tennis at his clubs in Dana Point, Laguna Niguel and Irvine.

“We were scared the police were going to come to our club and arrest him, so we let him go,” Spearman said.

Had Tanner been handcuffed on court, though, it wouldn’t have been the first time -- or even the second. In 1997, he was arrested at a senior tennis event for missing payments to Connie Romano, the woman who’d filed the paternity suit. Four years later, he was arrested again at a tennis event for failing to pay child support. On both occasions, Tanner spent time in jail.

But the worst was yet to come for the Stanford-educated man from Lookout Mountain, Tenn., a wealthy suburb of Chattanooga. While working as a tennis instructor in St. Petersburg, Fla., in spring 2001, Tanner bought a 32-foot yacht with a $35,500 check, anticipating that he could cover it in time with $50,000 from a tennis-related deal. The yacht was going to take him and Margaret, his third and current wife, on newlywed travels in the Gulf of Mexico.

No sooner had Tanner taken possession of the boat, however, than he used it as collateral for a $10,000 loan.

Then the tennis deal fell through and Tanner’s check bounced. He later was arrested on grand theft charges at his home in Germany -- where he was teaching tennis and playing in senior tournaments. The arrest led to 10 months in prison in Germany, Florida and New Jersey.

Tanner had plenty of time to ponder his fate while in prison. He also had time to watch television, and discovered the Rev. Robert H. Schuller’s “Hour of Power.”

“He was talking about a peace that transcends all understanding,” Tanner said. “As I looked around a cell that had graffiti of Americans with their heads cut off, I said, ‘I need that peace.’ ”

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In his book, Tanner describes his religious conversion: “I had either spent, lost or signed over all my money. I had ripped off friends, innocent acquaintances and creditors on two continents. I had cheated on two wives and failed miserably as a father to six daughters. When I looked at the sum of my life, it added up to a big, fat zero. I was swimming through life at rock bottom.”

Seemingly hopelessly in debt after his release from prison in New Jersey in spring 2004, Tanner found a sympathetic soul in Spearman, the tennis-club owner.

After polling several longtime members, Spearman decided that hiring a Grand Slam champion with a dubious past was worth the risk. Tanner worked full time at the three fitness-tennis clubs in south Orange County, charging $75 an hour and paying the club 25% of that.

About that time, Tanner began meeting with his so-called accountability group -- close friends who had promised to help him stay on the straight and narrow. John Devlin, who owns an Orange County mortgage company, said he lent Tanner more than $30,000.

“I got the impression that he wanted to make a change in his lifestyle, make restitution to all the people he’d let down in the past,” Devlin said.

“It looked like he had an epiphany.”

Just the same, Tanner eventually wore out his welcome, showing up late for clinics and lessons, or missing them entirely, Spearman said. He also failed to make car payments, as promised, on a 2004 SUV registered in Spearman’s name.

Tanner said he and Spearman parted on good terms -- conceding he’d been “troublesome” on the car payments and calling the missed appointments “misunderstandings.”

Devlin said he was disappointed to hear of Tanner’s latest problems.

“It was a great opportunity with Cecil,” he said. “It’s a great turnaround story -- if the turnaround occurred. Maybe he hasn’t hit the bottom, where he’s willing to work his way up.”

Gene Gammon, the victimized boat broker, had to merge his business after losing the $35,000. He says he still hasn’t heard from Tanner or received a nickel from him.

“I’ve read more than once that he’s found God and was going to repay everyone,” Gammon said. “He’s the kind of guy who can look you in the eye and be just so believable. He’s a con man. And he’s still just a spoiled kid. I doubt if I’ll ever see the $35,000 he owes me.”

Tanner said he would begin receiving his Assn. of Tennis Professionals pension of almost $900 a month in February and that he would repay Gammon.

“I have not forgotten him,” Tanner said. “I take him very seriously. It’s a matter of doing things as I can. I’m not really rolling in the money.”

Tanner’s second wife doesn’t want to see her former husband return to jail. She simply wants him to be a father to their daughters.

“He has abandoned his daughters,” said Charlotte, who lives in Aliso Viejo. “Anybody who’s a changed person contacts their kids. The only time he ever sees them is in court.”

Tanner returned to Southern California in August, after spending a month in England and Germany, where he rents a home with Margaret, who is expecting a child. He has since landed in Knoxville, Tenn., where he is teaching at the Smoky Mountain Tennis Academy.

“Some people end up doing the right thing with a nudge and others have to be hit in the head,” he said.

“It appears that I had to be hit in the head.”


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