PROVIDENCE — Former doubles champion Bob Hewitt has been suspended from the International Tennis Hall of Fame after an investigation into allegations that he sexually abused girls he coached, and his legacy has been stripped from the institution.
The Hall executive committee voted unanimously this week 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, Hall CEO Mark Stenning told The Associated Press on Thursday.
The Australian-born Hewitt won 15 Grand Slam doubles titles in the 1960s and 1970s and was inducted into the Hall in 1992.
No one has ever before been suspended or expelled from the Hall.
Stenning said the committee did not consider expulsion because it was believed that would require a criminal conviction.
A man with an Australian accent who answered Hewitt’s South African-listed cellphone number on Friday said he was "not available for comment".
The Weekend Post newspaper in South Africa, where he lives, quoted him last year as saying, "I only want to apologise if I offended anyone in any way." Stenning said Hewitt’s plaque in the Hall and other references to him there 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.
Suellen Sheehan, who accuses Hewitt of raping her when she was nine years old and one of his tennis proteges in South Africa, told the AP on Friday that she stayed awake late into the night to hear news that he had been removed from the Hall.
"He will never ever go up on that wall. My work is done," Sheehan, now 43 and a businesswoman in Johannesburg, said. "That is what I set out to do. To all people out there who feel that they will never be heard or believed, you know, we have now been believed."
Sheehan said she and three other alleged victims of Hewitt’s abuse had been pushed by the Hall of Fame to pursue a criminal case against Hewitt so that they could act. She said she believed that he sexually abused more than 24 young girls.
A criminal investigator in South Africa was handling her case, Sheehan said, and the four alleged victims who had decided to pursue the case together had "a good chance of justice".
"For all intents and purposes we wanted to remove him from the Hall because he didn’t deserve to be there. But he still needs to go to jail," Sheehan said.
Twiggy Tolken, another alleged victim, said in an e-mail to the AP from New Zealand — where she lives, having left South Africa — that she was "overwhelmed" at the news.
"We have all waited a very long time for the HOF to make a decision, sometimes even thinking they would not," Tolken wrote. "I am extremely happy they made the right decision. Bob Hewitt has got away with far too much for far too long."
Sheehan and Tolken both agreed to be named. The AP typically does not identify people who say they were sexually abused unless they agree.
Attorney Michael Connolly of the firm Hinckley, Allen & Snyder, which the Hall hired to conduct the inquiry into the allegations, 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 characterise those discussions.
Connolly said he had 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 favour of indefinitely suspending Hewitt.
The Hall changed its bylaws this year to allow for both suspension and expulsion.
Among those Connolly interviewed was Heather Conner of West Newbury, Massachusetts. She says she was sexually abused by Hewitt from age 15, when she says he forced her to have sex with him near a high school in Massachusetts.
Conner had been critical of the Hall for not taking action sooner and had sought Hewitt’s expulsion. She said on Thursday she was surprised — and pleased — by the Hall’s decision.
"Honestly, I really didn’t think they were going to do anything," she said. "I’m thankful that they’ve listened and heard. It feels good to be believed."
At least two of Hewitt’s accusers in South Africa 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 had moved slowly.