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 Not only was Gammon out the money, but the mall lenders now superseded him as creditors.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.