Tennis Hall of Fame investigates abuse claim

By DONNA BRYSON
Associated Press

The man she accuses of raping her when she was his 9-year-old protege has no place in the International Tennis Hall of Fame, a South African woman said Wednesday.

Suellen Sheehan, now 43 and a businesswoman in Johannesburg, said it took years to overcome feelings of shame, guilt and fear she would not be believed. She and other accusers came forward last year to ask the Hall of Fame to remove Bob Hewitt from its ranks.

The Newport, Rhode Island-based Hall said on Tuesday it had hired an attorney to investigate the allegations against Hewitt, an Australian-born former doubles champion who now lives in the southeastern South African town of Addo. The investigation could result in the first expulsion from the Hall.

A man who answered Hewitt's mobile phone Wednesday said Hewitt was unavailable for comment.

Sheehan said it was difficult to speak out, but once she did, it helped her heal.

"To say his name now is easy. A year ago, I couldn't say it," she said in an interview. "I've actually forgiven him. Although he has to pay for what he did."

The AP typically doesn't identify people who say they were sexually abused, unless they agree, as Sheehan did, to be named publicly.

The 72-year-old Hewitt played in the 1960s and 1970s, coached young players in South Africa in the 1980s, and was inducted into the Hall in 1992. At the time of his induction, Sheehan said Wednesday, she was trying to block out memories of abuse that started when he began coaching her when she was 9 and lasted until she was 14.

But last year, she and other women who say Hewitt abused them began talking about their outrage. She said she knows of other women in South Africa, the United States and New Zealand who say they were abused by Hewitt, but she did not say how many accusers there are.

They approached Hall of Fame officials, who told them they could do nothing because Hewitt did not face criminal charges, Sheehan said.

In December, Sheehan asked South African police to open a rape investigation. Peter Van Niekerk, a South African lawyer who represents Sheehan and others, said Wednesday that a criminal investigation into the allegations against Hewitt has moved slowly. The spokesman for South Africa's prosecuting authority did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the case.

Twiggy Tolken, 44, a South African now living in New Zealand, said Hewitt began abusing her when she was 12, and her family went to the police when she was 13. Her parents later dropped the case because they did not want Tolken to have to face Hewitt in court, she said. But she said she saved letters he wrote her that detailed his advances and warned her to keep quiet so that if anyone else ever came forward, she would "be able to say, `It also happened to me, and here's the evidence."

"In all honesty, Bob Hewitt needs to go to jail," Tolken said in a telephone interview.

The Hall of Fame's former president Tony Trabert initially promised an inquiry last year, but the Hall's chief executive officer Mark Stenning told The Boston Globe in May that none was being conducted. Stenning told the AP on Tuesday that had changed, saying the Hall is now "doing the right thing."

"The Hall of Fame is where it started," Sheehan said. "Now, I want him to be charged. And then, I'm done. Whether I'm ever going to get my day in court, I don't know. But he needs to be charged."

Sheehan said that as a child she told her mother of the abuse, "and she dismissed it." She counts the destruction of her relationship with her parents as part of the toll of the abuse, but said she has come to believe adults who knew or suspected something was wrong simply did not know how to respond.

She was switched to another coach, a woman, when she was 14, and about two years later went to play and study in the United States. She did not pursue a professional tennis career.

"I gave up tennis. As soon as I was old enough to say, `I'm not doing this anymore,' I stopped."

Among others interviewed as part of the Hall's inquiry is Heather Conner, of West Newbury, Massachusetts. Conner, like Sheehan, agreed to be named.

Conner says she was sexually abused by Hewitt starting at age 15, when she says he forced her to have sex with him near a high school in Massachusetts. Conner is critical of the Hall for not taking action sooner and said she wants to see Hewitt expelled.

Sheehan, the South African, said the focus should be on the accused.

"The message needs to go out to the coaches, and it needs to go to the people who can abuse their power," she said. "They mustn't think they can always get away with it."

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Associated Press Writer Erika Niedowski in Providence, Rhode Island contributed to this report.

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