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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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By all accounts it's worked well. What hacker wouldn't want to take pointers from a serving demon who nearly won Wimbledon? James Dolan, the New York Knicks' owner, recently took five lessons from Tanner. Every week more of his time is booked. "The members think the world of Roscoe," says Spearman. "He's a great guy, a great teacher. Boy, he can really carry on and tell a million stories."

Everyone likes a happy ending. This saga may get one, but we're not there yet. Tanner still hasn't gotten together with Tamara and Anne, who live a few miles from him but remain wounded by Dad's disappearing act and the welter of excuses he gave. Tanner claims that Charlotte is standing between him and his daughters, but she points out that Tamara is in college and not subject to her control. "I still can't figure him out, just leaving us and never coming back," says Tamara, a thoughtful, earnest sophomore at Loyola Marymount, where she got a full ride to play tennis. "Two plus two doesn't equal four with him." Last month Tanner sought a reduction of his alimony and child support obligation to Tamara and Anne.

What's more, in September, Tanner was arrested at a doughnut shop in Laguna Niguel after missing a scheduled New Jersey court appearance in the Romano matter. (He was released and appeared in court in early September.) "It's always the same thing with that guy," says Bob Lang, a Somerset County, N.J., prosecutor. "He agrees to meet obligations, he fails to meet them and then he disappears."

Nor does Roscoe have a relationship with his 10-year-old daughter by Romano. "He has done so much damage to that girl," says Romano, now an artist living in New Jersey. "She asked him for a photograph because she wanted to draw her father. Nothing. He promised to give her a tennis lesson. Nothing. He promised her a teddy bear. Nothing. As far as I'm concerned, he's a loser."

And if Tanner hasn't been run out from the tennis fraternity, he is on something akin to double secret probation. The unpaid loans from many of his former colleagues are part of it. But opinion in the seniors' locker room really shifted when evidence mounted that Tanner was neglecting his kids. "We like the guy, we want to see him get his life together, but we also want to see him take care of his family," says Stockton, whose wife, Liz, remains friendly with Charlotte Tanner. "The whole thing makes all of us who have known him sick."

Tanner knows that he has a lot of accounting to do, that not all of his debts are financial ones. But he didn't hit rock bottom all at once, and he thinks his climb back will be gradual, too. "People always say, 'It's day by day,' but really that's what it is with me. There was so much cloudy thinking, so many decisions that any sane person could see were crazy. I went to a pretty good school. I was supposed to be pretty intelligent. Look at me now: I have no money, no credit. But you know what? I'm happier now than I ever was in my tennis career. When I won the Australian Open, I was happy for about 10 minutes. There are not those empty spots now. Do I know where this is all going? No. But I know this: I'm through running."

These days you can catch Tanner in Laguna Niguel, usually on one of the eight courts at Spearman's Tennis Club at Monarch Beach, a swank stucco complex where the air is perfumed by breezes from the nearby Pacific. A sheen of sweat on his forehead, Tanner wields a scarlet Wilson racket and tells housewives, kids, seniors--whoever comes through the door--to bend their knees for that volley or shorten that backswing or follow through by pointing at the target. He's charming and energetic, and if he warms up, he can still crank a 120-mph serve.

Late one afternoon in October, as palms cast long shadows across the court, Tanner is giving a private lesson to his prize student, Stefan Simikic, a 15-year-old with big-time potential. They play a series of tiebreakers. At one point Tanner grooves a serve that recalls the mop-haired pro from Tennessee. Simikic sticks a return back, and the two players, a Wimbledon finalist and a Wimbledon hopeful, rally for a dozen strokes. Simikic bats the ball to the middle of the court, and Tanner is in prime position to chip and charge. But he dumps an easy forehand into the net.

"You had me right where you wanted me!" the kid says, laughing. Tanner, too, laughs at his error. He picks up the ball, stuffs it in his pocket and retreats to the baseline to play the next point, at once in plain view and obscured by shadows. ?

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