Still Cheering For Roscoe Tanner

Monday, February 13, 2006 - by John Shearer
The cover of Double Fault: My Rise and Fall, and My Road Back. Click to enlarge.
The cover of Double Fault: My Rise and Fall, and My Road Back. Click to enlarge.

As a student at Baylor School in the 1970s, I certainly remember following with pride the rise to tennis stardom of 1969 Baylor graduate Roscoe Tanner of Lookout Mountain.

I also still vividly recall that Saturday morning in 1979, after my freshman year at the University of Georgia, when I climbed out of bed early -- at least for a college student -- to cheer for him against the great Bjorn Borg in the first live “Breakfast at Wimbledon” finals on TV.

Like many others, I have also followed with sadness and almost disbelief the countless legal and financial troubles he has had in recent years.

So, it was with much interest that I read his recently published Triumph Books autobiography, Double Fault: My Rise and Fall, and My Road Back, written with Mike Yorkey. What I found was a man who has experienced the highs and lows of life that perhaps few other native Chattanoogans have.

He was a man who could hit tennis serves that could not be returned, but he, himself, could not make satisfactory returns on mounting financial obligations.

But, fortunately for him, his book ends at a point in which he at least appears to be “breaking serve,” to use a tennis term. He talks about a jailhouse rededication of his life to the Lord, his admission that his past problems were due to self-centeredness, and his determination to be a model Christian and a better person the rest of his life.

Although I am aware that the same legal issues have again landed him in a Florida prison since the book was published, I still found myself sympathetically cheering for his future and realizing how he still has an opportunity to use his unique perspective and adverse experiences to leave a positive mark on the world.

Like fellow Lookout Mountain native Andrew Exum in his memoirs of his Iraq War experiences, Tanner is extremely candid in the book about his family and childhood. He also writes with honesty about his extramarital affairs, drug use and situations that put him in trouble with the law.

In describing his early life, he writes that he was always known in tennis as the player from Lookout Mountain, Tenn., and that some from outside the South thought he had been raised in a hillbilly community in the hollers of Appalachia. He goes on to paint a pleasant description of Lookout Mountain and Chattanooga. He also talks about his childhood experiences of living in three different houses on Lookout Mountain and worshiping at Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church. But he adds that he quit going to church much after going away to Stanford University.

He writes in detail about learning to play tennis with childhood buddies Forrest Simmons, Rob Healy and King Oehmig under Fairyland Club pro Jerry Evert, the uncle of former great Chris Evert. In fact, a tip Coach Evert told them while showing them how to knock leaves off a tree at the Fairyland Club was the beginning of the development of his powerful serve.

His father, longtime local lawyer and tennis player Leonard Tanner, was a member of both Manker-Patten/Chattanooga Tennis Club and Fairyland Club, and this helped Roscoe develop his game as a youngster, especially after Manker-Patten installed an indoor facility and he could play year round. Roscoe writes of playing with future great Jimmy Connors (and the former husband of Chris Evert) of the St. Louis area many times in Chattanooga when they were young. He vividly recalls Connors’ mother and grandmother vocally coaching Connors. Tanner also mentions his teen-age girlfriend, Anne Clark.

Tanner also talks in detail about being a member of the Baylor tennis team at the time when the late Chattem Inc. head Alex Guerry Jr. was trying to help the school become one of the country’s best high school tennis programs in the mid- and late 1960s while son, Zan Guerry, was playing. Another Red Raider player was Brian Gottfried, who also enjoyed some success as a pro.

Roscoe writes that he thought about going to Tennessee to college. But he instead became a trailblazer in helping build Stanford into a power after hearing that the Tennessee coach made players get up and run every Saturday morning.

But he would do plenty of hustling at Stanford. He decided to turn pro after his junior year and wanted to try the fledgling professional circuit for a brief time before perhaps following in his father’s footsteps as an attorney.

A rarely publicized fact he brings out about his peak professional years in the 1970s is that his doubles teammate and perhaps best professional friend was the great Arthur Ashe. He humanizes the iconic Ashe but mentions nothing about Ashe’s battle with AIDS following a tainted blood transfusion.

Roscoe discusses winning the 1977 Australian Open, his only Grand Slam title, at a time when few of the top Americans played in it because it was then held over the Christmas holidays.

And he says he is most remembered for his 1979 Wimbledon final loss to Borg, a five-set match that could have easily been won by Tanner.

It was while he was in his ascent up the tennis ladder that he began a moral descent. A few years after he had been married, not only did he damage relationships with his parents and oldest sister, Sherry Earnhart, but he also began cheating on his first wife, Nancy, while she was at home in California and he was away playing in tournaments, he says.

He was having an affair with a woman when he stunned his wife with the news that he wanted a divorce, he writes. The affair did not last long, he says, but the hefty alimony and child support payments with his first wife started him on the road to years of indebtedness.

While married to his second wife, Charlotte, a relationship that brought two daughters, he used cocaine for a couple of years, he says. He writes that being high clouded his judgment and made him miss appointments and take spur-of-the-moment trips to expensive resorts.

During his second marriage, he was playing in a senior tennis event in New York and, after having a few beers following a match, decided to call an escort service. The decision resulted in a pregnancy and hefty child support payments.

While with his third wife, Margaret, he was working at a yacht and tennis club on the west coast of South Florida. He decided to buy a used boat. He wrote a check thinking he was going to receive a large consulting fee for a series of tennis facilities bearing his name. Unfortunately, after he had written a check for the down payment of the boat and also after he had taken out a $10,000 loan from a quick cash store to pay for other needed expenses, he was notified that the development was being scaled back and he would not be hired as a consultant.

He also writes about the failed Lookout Mountain resort project that had been planed in the 1990s. It was being discussed at a time when he and his second wife had moved to the Chattanooga area.

After moving to Germany with his third wife and her two children a few years later, he was arrested for his problems related to money owed on the boat

Although he likely already felt mentally imprisoned with all the mounting debts and legal problems, he had to spend several humbling weeks in jail there while waiting to be transported to Florida to answer the boat charges.

But in that dark German cell, he found a ray of hope. A chaplain visited him there, he writes, and handed him an English language Bible. He began reading it and eventually decided to refocus his life on the Lord. On some days he would read his Bible as many as eight hours a day while in jail, he says.

This continued as he was transported to a Florida jail, where he developed a strong spiritual connection with several African-American inmates who were outspoken about their Christian faith.

Following a dream in which his late mother told him to take care of his daughters (four natural daughters and two stepdaughters), he also began showing much interest in them. He even became a pen pal with his illegitimate daughter, he says.

He also restored his relationship with his octogenarian father and sister, Sherry Earnhart, the latter of whom sent him Bible studies in prison.

After getting the Florida boat situation settled, he was transferred to a New Jersey jail to answer the child support charges related to the illegitimate daughter. He writes of passing through Chattanooga on a prison bus and also of having to bend down and eat fast food basically off his lap because his hands were shackled to his body.

The man who could serve the tennis ball as well as anyone could hardly even serve himself food.

He was eventually released from the New Jersey jail 10 months after first being arrested in Germany.

To help him maintain his new Christian lifestyle upon his release, he asked 8 people to form a support group to encourage him. They include former tennis great Stan Smith.

I found myself cheering as hard for him as he continues to try to restore his life as I did way back on that summer morning of long ago. Let’s hope he can win this match, when he is finally released from prison.

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