Tennis star trailed by allegations of abuse
After a Hall of Fame playing career, Bob Hewitt became a coveted coach. But some young girls he taught say he preyed on them sexually. Many years later, they want him held to account.
In summer 1976, Heather Crowe Conner was a Girl Scout and honor student who had never put on makeup or kissed a boy.
She was also a budding junior tennis star.
Bob Hewitt was tennis royalty, one of the greatest doubles players of all time, fresh off a star turn with the Boston Lobsters. He was 36, bound for the International Tennis Hall of Fame and, by numerous accounts and sources within the tennis world, living a double life.
In his everyday life, Hewitt coached tennis. On his first day teaching at a club in Danvers in 1976, he offered to coach Conner, then known as Heather Crowe, for free. She was 14.
In his secret life, Hewitt had begun exploiting his marquee name to build a career as a coach and to sexually abuse or harass some of the underage girls he trained, one of them just 10, according to a six-month Globe investigation that involved dozens of interviews both in the United States and in Hewitt’s South African homeland.
Hewitt’s alleged misconduct spanned nearly a decade, with his fame flourishing even as the number of victims, Conner among them, rose.
As the eyes of the tennis world turn this week to the US Open, where Hewitt won the 1977 doubles title, the sport’s leaders are publicly confronted for the first time with the accounts of women who say their lives were scarred and the game tarnished by a scandal that some in the tennis world knew or suspected, but which went unpunished.
The women, some seeking justice, others just hoping to heal, look at their experiences as a test case for the sport: How tennis will respond to allegations of the abuse of vulnerable junior players by a Hall of Fame champion.
Criminal prosecution may be out of reach, because so many years have passed, but the women say there is no statute of limitation on their pain.
“He destroyed me as a person,’’ said Suellen Sheehan, one of the four alleged victims who agreed to go public with accounts of their experience.
Hewitt, who declined to discuss the allegations, has never been charged with a crime, and it is difficult to confirm the women’s accounts.
But one of the accusers has filed a police report in Massachusetts. Independently, their stories paint the same or a similar picture.
And interviews with others in professional tennis circles showed that numerous individuals were aware of complaints by underage girls or their parents about Hewitt’s alleged abuse or harassment.
Sheehan said she was 10 in 1979 when Hewitt began making sexual advances toward her.
“I’ve been trying for the last 30-odd years to get my life back,’’ said Sheehan, 42, an office manager of the South African Golf Association. “I haven’t recovered yet.’’
Gina Read, 42, of Johannesburg, said she was 14 when Hewitt began sexually harassing her. She said he threatened more than once to rape her.
“I was devastated then, and I’m devastated now,’’ Read said. “He screwed up my life and broke down my belief in people.’’
Nicole Gold, 42, of Sea Island, Ga., the fourth woman who came forward, said she was 13 when Hewitt began sexually harassing her and tried coaxing her to have sex with him.
Conner, like other alleged victims, said Hewitt began preying on her soon after he recruited her as a student. She had recently turned 15, she said, when he first had sex with her in the fall of 1976 near the tennis courts at Masconomet Regional High School in Topsfield.
“He told me I couldn’t tell anyone or he would be in big trouble,’’ said Conner, 50, a teacher at Reading Memorial High School. “He called it statutory rape and said he could go to prison.’’
In an interview with a Globe reporter outside his farmhouse in Addo, South Africa, Hewitt, 71, declined to address the allegations. Unloading groceries from his BMW after his wife of 46 years, Delaille, stepped away, Hewitt was asked first about the allegations made by Heather Conner, the 14-year-old girl he coached in Danvers in 1976.
He initially denied knowing Conner, whose name at the time was Crowe.
“You don’t know her?’’ he was asked.
“No,’’ Hewitt said. “I would rather just forget about it.’’
He then acknowledged knowing her as Heather Crowe and asked, “What’s she bringing it up now for?’’
Hewitt declined the reporter’s invitation to look at Conner’s police complaint and a five-page memoir she wrote about her experience with him.
He also rejected several opportunities to rebut her allegations and those involving other underage girls.
“I’m not saying anything,’’ Hewitt said, his home surrounded by lemon and orange groves in a lush river valley. “I don’t want to talk about it.’’
Many of his contemporaries support the effort by the women to hold him accountable. They said his alleged misdeeds were no secret in the tightknit South African tennis community and should have been condemned long ago.
Hewitt’s alleged misconduct “was a terrible, terrible thing,’’ said Raymond Moore, who played on three Davis Cup teams with Hewitt. “We were all praying and hoping he would get his comeuppance, but he never did.’’
It is unclear how many girls were involved. His students and contemporaries, in interviews with the Globe, mentioned nine women in the United States and South Africa who they believed may have been harassed by Hewitt.
But beyond the four who shared their accounts, none were willing to be interviewed or could be reached.
Those who came forward say the emotional trauma has yet to recede. All four women said the fallout has damaged their self-image, and in some cases their ability to maintain loving relationships.
“I may look fine and dandy,’’ Conner said, “but I’m still kind of a mess.’’
Complaints began early While there is no indication American tennis authorities knew of Hewitt’s alleged transgressions, complaints were lodged as early as the 1970s with leaders of South Africa’s tennis community.
Keith Brebnor, who managed tennis events in South Africa, said he privately expressed concern about the allegations involving Hewitt in the mid-1970s to Blen Franklin, then the president of the South Africa Tennis Union, which is now defunct. Brebnor said Franklin, who has since died, told him the girls had only one recourse, to take Hewitt to court.
“I said, ‘For God’s sake, you can’t put a little girl on the witness stand,’ ’’ Brebnor recalled.
He said Franklin agreed that the process would have been “horrendous.’’
“That was the end of it,’’ said Brebnor. “Unless somebody was going to put their money where their mouth was, nothing was going to happen.’’
By then, Hewitt was a titan of professional tennis. With Frew McMillan, the only other South African in the Hall of Fame, Hewitt formed one of the most indomitable doubles teams in history, capturing 57 career titles, including victories over teams led by Arthur Ashe, Bjorn Borg, and John McEnroe.
In an era when professional tennis captivated much of the sporting public, Hewitt won 15 Grand Slam doubles titles before he retired in 1983.
McMillan, who has lived primarily in England since the mid-1970s, said he knew nothing about the allegations.
By all accounts, including McMillan’s, he and Hewitt were never close off the court.
“It comes as a shock,’’ said McMillan. “I would never have imagined it possible.’’
He began teaming with Hewitt, a native Australian, soon after Hewitt became a South African citizen in the mid-1960s.
Times were different then in South Africa. In the eyes of the world, South Africa’s greatest scandal was apartheid, its policy of racial oppression. The country was routinely banned from international sporting events, as Hewitt and McMillan experienced in 1975 when they were deported from Mexico while trying to defend their world doubles title.
Two weeks later, Hewitt joined the Lobsters, a World Team Tennis franchise newly owned by five businessmen, including New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
Hewitt - a broad-chested man of 6 feet 3 inches who was balding, bearded, and prematurely graying - quickly became a face of the Lobsters as the team ran ad campaigns featuring him and the fiery coach, Ion “Count Dracula’’ Tiriac.
Hewitt lasted only one season with the Lobsters. When an elbow injury after the 1975 season cut short his stay, Hewitt found temporary work as tennis director of the Village Green Racquet and Swim Club in Danvers.
The owner, Alan Greenberg, helped the Hewitts and their preschool daughter settle at an adjacent motor inn, and soon Hewitt was coaching Conner.
In a complaint she filed last year with Topsfield police, Conner said Hewitt was driving her home from babysitting his daughter that October when he detoured to the school and first had sex with her.
“He raped me!’’ Conner stated, according to the police report. She was referring to statutory rape; it is illegal in Massachusetts for an adult to engage in sex with a 15-year-old.
Conner said Hewitt “told her not to say anything, and she told no one,’’ according to the police report.
Greenberg was shaken by the news. “Heather was a wonderful girl,’’ he said recently. “I feel terrible something like this happened.’’
Conner said Hewitt had sex with her again when she was 15 at a Springfield hotel in February 1977. She had just turned 16 in the summer of ’77, she said, when Hewitt engaged in sex with her twice more, first in a car at the Longwood Cricket Club in Chestnut Hill, then at a house in Louisville.
The alleged Louisville encounter occurred just weeks before Hewitt became the oldest man (37 years, 243 days) to win a US Open doubles title.
“I was the innocent one in all of this,’’ Conner said. “I don’t want to sound vindictive, but I want him held accountable for his actions.’’
Essex County prosecutors believe Conner “certainly is credible,’’ spokesman Steve O’Connell said. But an investigation has stalled, he said, largely because so much time has passed since the alleged incidents, Hewitt’s foreign location, and the lack of additional evidence.
In Conner’s case, she maintained a sexual relationship with Hewitt while she won the Massachusetts high school singles championship in 1977, captured a national singles title at Indiana University in 1982, and played professionally against the likes of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova until she retired at 27 in 1988, the last time she saw him. She said she was vulnerable to Hewitt’s overtures of love and believed him when he assured her they would be together one day as adult partners.
“As someone who considers herself a logical and rational person, it’s shocking to me that I was so completely brainwashed for so many years,’’ said Conner, who is the mother of two girls.
Penalties may still apply Authorities on sexual abuse of adolescents said it is not uncommon for underage victims to remain involved with adult abusers after they are beyond the legal age of consent, which in Massachusetts is 16 or 18, depending on the circumstances.
One state law provides a penalty of up to life in prison for an adult who has sexual intercourse with a victim under 16. Another law mandates a sentence of up to three years in prison for a person who induces someone who is under 18 and “of a chaste life’’ to have sexual intercourse.
There is no statute of limitations for cases brought under the state law forbidding sex with those under 16, so long as the complaint is “supported by independent evidence that corroborates the victim’s allegation,’’ according to Chapter 277, Section 63 of the General Laws of Massachusetts.
David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, spoke generally about Conner’s case, because he has not met her.
“The fact that some abusers are good at making their victims feel beautiful and loved makes it difficult for the victims to come forward,’’ Finkelhor said. “We don’t often talk about those dynamics because we’re afraid someone will accuse the kids of being at fault, which they’re not. But a lot of kids do collaborate in their victimization, in the sense that they are initially flattered by it. Sometimes, that lasts a long time.’’
Conner waited until she was 32, on the eve of her wedding in 1994, before she confided in her sister, Sharon Walsh. Two weeks later, she told her husband, Ryan Conner.
She said she intended to keep the secret, in part to protect her aging parents from the shock, but she became so overwrought last year by the onset of her long-suppressed emotions that she had trouble coping at home and work. She said she began fearing for the safety of her oldest daughter, then 14, and suddenly felt so damaged by the decades-old experience that she took medical leaves from teaching, entered counseling, and relinquished her seat as an elected member of the Pentucket Regional School Committee.
“I was effectively falling apart and needed to do something about it,’’ she said.
In a post-resignation speech to the committee, Conner spoke publicly about the trauma for the first time, without naming Hewitt. She also withheld his name from an article in the Newburyport Daily News, although she listed enough of his achievements that he was easily identifiable to many in the tennis world.
The news created a buzz among Hewitt’s contemporaries, a number of whom shared their unpleasant memories about Hewitt with each other.
“It was a sad day for tennis,’’ said Tanya Harford, a South African whose professional tennis career overlapped Hewitt’s.
In the 1980s, Harford said, she spoke to a 14-year-old girl who alleged that Hewitt lured her into a sexual relationship. Harford recalled that the girl’s father was planning to complain to the South African Tennis Union.
Soon after, according to sources close to the organization’s leaders, Hewitt was quietly barred from coaching girls.
But the move came too late for Sheehan, Read, and Gold. All three were coached by Hewitt during the peak of his celebrity in the early 1980s and received tennis scholarships to American colleges: Sheehan to Auburn University at Montgomery, Read to the University of South Florida, and Gold to the University of Florida.
All three rued their experiences with him.
“When I was 9, he started asking me if the other girls were virgins, when I didn’t even know what a virgin was,’’ Sheehan said. “When I was 10, it escalated to him taking it into his own hands that he needed to teach me about what he called the birds and the bees. And that’s what he did.’’
Sheehan said she was too upset to detail her alleged sexual abuse, other than to say she experienced physical and emotional pain and was asked by her mother if she was pregnant. She was not.
Read and Gold said Hewitt sexually harassed them during the same period, although they never discussed it with each other until they were well into adulthood. In separate interviews, they recalled Hewitt repeatedly pressing against them while he was sexually aroused, among other inappropriate actions and comments.
Gold said she was 13 during a tournament in Miami in 1982 when Hewitt urged her to visit his hotel room to have sex with him.
“I was scared to death,’’ said Gold, a married mother of two. “I found the biggest guy on the South African team and asked him to stay in my room. We put the chair against the door until my mom got there the next day.’’
Read recounted a similar experience. After warding off Hewitt’s numerous attempts to kiss her, she said, he made his most forceful advance, in the garden outside a home near Johannesburg. She was 14.
“He was so desperate to get to me that he told me he was going to have to rape me in the garden,’’ she said.
Read said she eluded him. But Read, like Hewitt’s other alleged victims, said she felt helpless to report him because of his elite status in South Africa and society’s general unwillingness at the time to respect such allegations.
Read said her father eventually found her a new coach after she tearfully asked to be free of Hewitt. Sheehan said she found no relief at home because her mother, adamant that Hewitt would make her a great player, dismissed Sheehan’s complaints about Hewitt as “rubbish.’’ And Gold, whose maiden name is Polasek, said she was fortunate to break away when relatives in Chicago invited her to live with them.
“All of us were so young that we didn’t know if anyone would believe us,’’ Gold said. “We felt so alone.’’
Faltering investigations Hewitt, his public image unsullied, entered the Hall of Fame in 1992. Several years later, he attempted to restore his status with the South African Tennis Union, prompting the union to investigate long-whispered rumors about his purported preying on young girls.
Terry Rosenberg, then the union’s president, said he addressed the matter by seeking out the parent of a girl whom Hewitt allegedly abused at least 10 years earlier.
Rosenberg would not discuss the conversation because the parent requested confidentiality. Nor would Rosenberg address personnel decisions involving Hewitt, other than to say, “Under my watch, he was neither contracted by nor employed by the tennis union.’’
For the past 22 years, however, Hewitt has maintained his elite status as a coach certified by the US Professional Tennis Association, although there is no indication that he has been active in recent years.
“Unless a member is charged and convicted of a crime, he or she is basically allowed to maintain a membership status with us,’’ said USPTA spokeswoman Poornima Rimm.
Hewitt’s Hall of Fame status also remains intact, while the organization waits to learn more about the women’s allegations, said chief executive Mark Stenning. The hall’s criteria for induction includes a character reference similar to baseball’s.
The South African Tennis Association also reserved comment.
But John Korff, who was general manager of the Lobsters when Hewitt played for them and now serves as a director at large of the US Tennis Association, expressed displeasure at Conner coming forward.
“Gee, it’s nice of the girl to pop up 35 years later,’’ Korff said. “Give me a break.’’
By most accounts, Hewitt has thrived since his Hall of Fame induction. He served many years as a commentator for South African television and operated a citrus farm in Addo from 1998 to 2007.
He has since lived like a country squire, motoring about Addo in his BMW, attending social events with his wife, browsing the town’s library, dining at the community’s finer restaurants.
He also wrote for an online South African newspaper, NewsTime.
In one of his last columns in 2009, Hewitt derided Andre Agassi, a Hall of Fame inductee this year, for disclosing that he used crystal methamphetamine as a player, failed a drug test, and lied to avoid punishment by saying he accidentally sipped a friend’s “spiked soda.’’
“Why oh why has he now decided to open up?’’ Hewitt wrote. “This isn’t doing him or the game any good at all!’’
The column was titled, “Is there a right time to come clean?’’
Bob Hohler can be reached at email@example.com.