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 prot�g� 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.