‘I forgive Bob Hewitt’

2015-03-29 15:00

The irony of her answer appears completely lost on Suellen Sheehan.

“I have to say thank you to my mother, especially,” the 45-year-old says when asked what gave her the strength to pursue rape charges against her former tennis coach, the legendary player Bob Hewitt, in the face of public and private vilification. “She taught me determination.”

Another irony, she says Hewitt himself also contributed to her sense of determination. “Bob always used to say: ‘You run down every ball.’”

Sheehan’s crediting of her chief tormentors as the main motivators in helping secure a rape conviction against Hewitt after 30 years is telling.

Hewitt raped her at age 12. Her mother, Judy Sheehan, pushed her to play tennis and branded her a liar on the stand.

“For my fifth birthday, I was given a tennis racket and a coach. My mum wanted me to play tennis,” Sheehan, a mother of one, says. “I don’t recall ever coming off the court when there wasn’t any drama. I had a bad reputation on the tennis court because, if I didn’t win, my mother would make her unhappiness clear?...?I actually ran away from her once and she chased me.”

It was through tennis that Sheehan, a talented player despite her aversion to the game, came into contact with Hewitt, then aged about 40, in 1980.

She was playing at a tournament at Ellis Park when she recalled feeling a “presence”.

“Somebody said ‘Bob Hewitt’s here’ and I asked who he was. At the time, he was coaching Twiggy [Tolken, who Hewitt was also convicted of raping]. After my match, he said he thought I was good and he wanted to discuss coaching me.”

Sheehan says her mother agreed, as her form had been dipping. She recalls the grooming and inappropriate behaviour starting from the outset.

Hewitt would grind up against her back when demonstrating a point, and have her do leg raises while he stood near her head, wearing no underpants under his shorts.

Hewitt – who won 15 grand slam doubles titles in the 1960s and 1970s – constantly told her he loved her and would “look down my panties”.

He told her she was special, that they had a special relationship and she should not tell anybody about it.

“I didn’t tell anybody,” she says. “He had made it very clear our discussions were private. You just keep the secret. I thought I was the only one. I thought I was special to him because that’s what he told me. That’s what I believed.”

Sheehan says that, while she realised something was “off”, she was too young to perceive exactly what was wrong. But she recalls one incident clearly.

“I went with him to the States for three weeks. He called me to his room and he was naked. But his wife was there. I definitely thought that was off, but there’s this sense of disbelief. You ask yourself, did that really just happen? I have asked myself that question a lot over the years.”

The rape too – she confides she was not able to say “rape” before this Tuesday, referring to it instead as “the r-word” – was followed by disbelief.

They had been talking about sex on the way to a practice session and arrived early. Hewitt kept saying “we need to do it”.

“I don’t think he planned it. I think he did it because no one was around. He laid the front seats down and it took about eight seconds. I just remember the sheer panic and pain and thought this was not right. [Afterwards] I pulled up my pants, went to clean myself and went out and played.”

Sheehan can recall that sense of disbelief easily. She has been walking around in that state since Monday when Judge Bert Bam convicted Hewitt of her rape as well as that of Tolken (who had “love letters” to back up her testimony) and the sexual assault of a third, unnamed, woman.

“This is a huge thing. I was pretty sure Twiggy would get her conviction because the letters were pretty damning, but because of my parents tearing me to shreds on the stand, I thought it was my word against his.”

Though South Africa was aghast when Judy and Mike Sheehan took the stand in Hewitt’s defence, Sheehan was not. Her relationship with her estranged parents – and especially her mother – has always been turbulent, with their problems preceding Hewitt’s entry into their lives.

While her relationship with her mother appears beyond rescuing (she is more forgiving of her father, who she says “tried, although he said the most heinous things on the stand”), Sheehan insists she has forgiven them, along with Hewitt, who she acknowledged she “developed feelings for”.

She forgave, following intensive therapy, to sever her “soul ties” with them. But forgiveness does not mean she has forgotten.

She says Hewitt’s violation and her parents’ betrayal cost her a lot, as has the betrayal of many friends and family members who doubted her. Neither her only brother, her 21-year-old son nor her large extended family have contacted her since Hewitt’s conviction.

“I have no doubt they are responsible for the many bad decisions I [subsequently] made. I blame Bob 110%, and I blame my mum and dad.

“What my mum and dad did was the catalyst for my having dysfunctional relationships. Bob Hewitt destroyed me.

“I had to go through a huge process, which was extraordinarily difficult for me. But I realised I had to forgive myself.”

Sheehan – who has been diagnosed with the chronic condition fibromyalgia, which is characterised by widespread musculoskeletal pain – says her nightmare has reaped some good. Since her story became public, she has been contacted by rape survivors around the world who want her advice and support.

“This has opened a door for me to help people. I certainly see myself speaking about my experiences. I’m going to write. I’m going to counsel people through the process I went through.”

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