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OUTSIDE LOOKING IN
L. JON WERTHEIM
November 29, 2004
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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November 29, 2004

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

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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.

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