Too broke to post bail, ex-tennis star Tanner faces final humiliation

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The Independent US

Roscoe Tanner astonished spectators at Wimbledon and the other tennis grand slam tournaments 25 years ago with his dynamite serve and hard-charging talent. But today, it is not Centre Court that awaits him, but a court of justice in Florida, and the threat of 20 years in prison.

Once ranked number four in the world, Mr Tanner is facing financial and legal humiliation. On Sunday, he was extradited to the United States from Germany to stand charges of grand theft and writing a bad cheque.

Mr Tanner, 51, has a new kind of record of achievement these days. But it has nothing to do with the speed of his serve. Rather, he has managed to squander tens of thousands of dollars. Yesterday, he was locked in a 24-person jail cell in Clearwater, near Tampa in Florida, unable to pay a bail set at $55,000 (£35,000) and too broke to pay for his lawyer.

He was brought to America on charges that he purchased a 34ft boat while working at a Clearwater tennis club three years ago with a cheque that failed to clear. Officials said that the former star would be formally charged in a court appearance on 18 August. The trial may take months.

Mr Tanner, who won the Australian Open in 1977 and was runner-up in Wimbledon in 1979, is also wanted in New Jersey, for allegedly failing to pay child support to a woman with whom he had an affair in 1993. He owes $70,000, prosecutors said. A court spokeswoman in Clearwater said: "After we have dealt with him here, he will have to go to New Jersey to deal with folks there." She said that Mr Tanner, by virtue of taking a public defender in the Florida case, would automatically enter a "not guilty" plea in court.

Court papers say that while Mr Tanner was working at the Treasure Island Club in Clearwater, he bought the boat from a local company, Gene Gammon & Associates, for $35,595. But his bank bounced the cheque.Mr Tanner apparently provided the authorities in Florida with a receipt, saying he had paid his debt. It was forged. He had reportedly used the boat as collateral on an unpaid loan. The vessel was repossessed.

Bruce Bartlett, of the Florida State Attorney's Office, said: "He forged a document to suggest restitution had been made. That seems to be the act of a desperate person, or a person with no respect for authority." Mr Bartlett also suggested Mr Tanner, who was born in Tennessee, had fled the US in 2002 to evade justice.

Divorced from his first wife, the former champion was living in Karlsruhe with a second wife, with whom he has two daughters. They have remained in Germany.

The left-hander has left behind him a trail of failed businesses, including tennis clubs and a chain of fitness gyms in the US and the Caribbean.

He had denied that the daughter of the woman in New Jersey, Connie Romano, was his. But paternity testing showed that he was 99 per cent certain to be the father. A court ordered him to pay her a lump sum of $500,000.

It was during the paternity dispute that he was arrested while playing in a seniors tournament in Florida in 1997 and spent a night in a police cell. After paying off much of the demand in 1998, he declared himself bankrupt. But he is alleged to still owe her an additional $70,000 in child support.

For Mr Tanner, his current situation is a world away from the way things stood at the beginning of his promising tennis career.

It was in 1969, as an unknown in the sporting world, that the man from Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, burst on to the tennis scene. With none of the advantages of today's racket technology, his 140mph left-hand serve was greeted with astonishment.

But his triumphs remained limited. His only grand slam victory was at the 1977 Australian Open, when he beat Argentina's Guillermo Vilas in straight sets in the final. While he peaked with a world ranking of No 4 in 1979, he went on to endure a series of lost matches. It was 22 years ago that he won the last of the nine Tour titles that he claimed during a 17-year career that reportedly earned him millions of dollars.

Upon retirement in 1984 due to an elbow injury, Mr Tanner continued to play on the senior circuit and act as a coach as well as focus on his business ventures.

Gary Shelton, a sports columnist for the St Petersburg Times in Florida, wrote: "How did this happen? For Tanner, life off the courts reads like the typical road-map of a career screw-up. Every bad decision is chased by a worse one and every mistake is multiplied by a bigger one. It's a shame. Time was, Tanner was such a joy to watch."

The tale of Mr Tanner ­ of a former sports hero fallen on bad times ­ is hardly an unfamiliar one. Only last week, America heard that the boxer Mike Tyson had filed for bankruptcy after running through his multimillion-dollar winnings.