By Dan Guttenplan
---- — A West Newbury woman who has alleged she was abused by former South African tennis star Bob Hewitt felt vindicated yesterday upon hearing the news that the former doubles champion was suspended from the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport.
West Newbury resident Heather Crowe Conner contributed to the Hall of Fame’s investigation of Hewitt in June, spending two days being interviewed by Michael Connelly, a Boston-based lawyer hired by the Hall of Fame’s executive committee. Conner was one of at least nine women who claimed Hewitt sexually abused, harassed or raped them while he was a coach during the 1970s through the 1990s.
Hall of Fame CEO Mark Stenning told The Associated Press that the Hall’s executive committee voted unanimously on Wednesday to suspend Hewitt indefinitely after an outside investigation deemed credible the allegations of multiple women who said they were abused by Hewitt while he was coaching them decades ago.
“My first reaction was shock,” Conner wrote in an email to The Daily News last night. “Honestly, I never expected the Hall to do anything. It has taken so long for this to happen, and it’s been a lifetime for me also. I don’t really know what to feel actually.”
Stenning said Hewitt’s plaque in the enshrinement hall and other references to him at the Hall, and on the Hall’s website, were removed on Thursday. The website had called him an “enduringly elegant player” and a “master of the doubles craft.”
“His legacy ceases to exist in the Hall of Fame,” Stenning said.
The Australian-born Hewitt won several Grand Slam events during his career in the 1960s and 1970s and was inducted into the Hall in 1992.
No one had ever been suspended or expelled from the Hall before yesterday. Stenning said the committee did not consider expulsion because it was believed that would require a criminal conviction.
“It never was my goal to get him removed from the Hall,” Conner wrote, “but I needed to tell my story to relieve the pressure and stress I was feeling, and to be able to move on with my life.”
Yesterday’s announcement concludes an investigation that seemed headed in the complete opposite direction in late May, when the Hall of Fame Committee issued a statement saying they had scrapped any plans for an inquiry into the former doubles Grand Slam champion and Hall of Famer, and would instead draft policies to address child sexual abuse in the future.
Conner, a former member of the Pentucket Regional School Committee, went public with her story in March of 2011 at a committee meeting during a portion of the agenda reserved for public commentary. She had been living with the secret for 35 years, but felt empowered to share her reasons for resigning from the Pentucket committee in August of 2010.
Conner revealed she had been molested and raped by her tennis coach for 15 years as a teen and young woman growing up in Topsfield. She first met the 36-year-old married man in 1975 when he was hired as the traveling tennis pro at a Danvers club. The tennis star told the former Heather Crowe and her family that he admired her athleticism and drive. He offered to help the 14-year-old train for free because, he told them, he believed she had what it took to become a great tennis player. She later played professionally in the most prestigious tournaments in the world, such as Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
Shortly after Hewitt offered his training services to Crowe for free, he made it clear to her that his offer came with strings attached, she said. Conner said that for the next 15 years, Hewitt controlled her life. She lived in fear and worry — of what would happen when she was left alone to train with him and what her friends and family would think if they found out.
“The trauma that occurred was tremendous, so obviously no one act like this will help relieve anything,” Conner wrote. “But it does feel good that they took action and took what I and others said seriously. It makes me feel a bit better that he is being held accountable for ruining young girls and taking their innocence away from them, something that can never be retrieved.”
Prior to the Hall of Fame’s investigation this summer, Conner, who is now in her early 50s, said the only response she had received from the Tennis Hall of Fame was a communication saying they were “sorry this happened to you.” Under current statute of limitations laws in Massachusetts, Conner is barred from pressing criminal charges against Hewitt because too much time has elapsed since the alleged abuse.
“I feel proud for the Hall of Fame that they would take a strong action against him,” Conner wrote. “I know it must have been hard, but I appreciate the fact that they ultimately value what is good and decent. I do feel better about tennis. Not much has been said, and not much attention has been paid to this in comparison to Penn State and other situations, so it is hard to feel like we’ve been forgotten, but the Hall of Fame made me not feel forgotten, and for that, I am thankful.”
Contact information for Hewitt, who lives in South Africa, could not immediately be found. The Weekend Post newspaper in South Africa quoted him last year as saying, “I only want to apologize if I offended anyone in any way.”
Connolly said he interviewed more than two dozen people over several months. He spent 10 hours interviewing Hewitt, who was accompanied by two South African lawyers, in September, but would not characterize those discussions.
Connolly said he pursued every lead he came across. “We identified as many of the victims as we could, spoke to them, spoke to their family members and spoke to a host of others with relevant information,” he said.
Connolly presented his initial findings to the executive committee in September, then made a final presentation to the panel in New York City on Wednesday, according to Stenning. Not all members of the committee were in attendance, but everyone who was there voted in favor of indefinitely suspending Hewitt.
The Hall changed its bylaws earlier this year to allow for both suspension and expulsion.
At least two of Hewitt’s accusers in South Africa had asked authorities to open a rape investigation. A South African lawyer representing some of the women told The AP in July that the criminal investigation has moved slowly. The status of the case was not immediately clear Thursday.
“I don’t have any closure because it is a daily struggle when dealing with trauma,” Conner wrote. “No one event or action such as this can put things back in place. This is certainly helpful though.”