NEW YORK - The fine champagne is flowing at $22 a flute. Demand is hot for Grey Goose Honey Deuces ($13.75 per highball). And filet mignons are flying out of the kitchen at $40 a pop.
Life is rich at the US Open, where few in the crowds have noticed a little silver plaque that honors Bob Hewitt on the wall of champions outside Arthur Ashe Stadium at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center. When Ashe and King were tennis giants in the 1970s, Hewitt and his partner, Frew McMillan, ruled the professional doubles game, amassing titles around the globe, including a 1977 Grand Slam championship at the US Open.
Hewitt, as many fans at Flushing Meadows have yet to learn, purportedly was engaged in a secret pursuit in the years before and after his ’77 feat. According to four women who recently detailed their experiences in the Globe, Hewitt, a 1992 inductee in the International Tennis Hall of Fame, allegedly sexually abused or harassed underage girls he was coaching in America and his South African homeland.
To the corporate titans of international tennis, the public’s fascination with the Open - from the cocktails to the art of the competition - rather than the Hewitt scandal has proven a welcome relief. But lurking amid the hurly-burly are signs that the sport may not easily free itself from the fallout of Hewitt’s alleged misconduct.
The Hall of Fame announced yesterday it has formed a committee to review the case, as one of the leading voices of professional tennis said publicly what some others would state only privately because their livelihoods depend on the game.
“If all this is true, I have a very, very difficult time having Bob Hewitt in the International Tennis Hall of Fame,’’ said Mary Carillo, a former professional player who is a member of the Hall’s nominating committee and long has served as a national broadcast tennis analyst. “I would like to think that this gets fully investigated by everybody.’’
Hall of Fame president Tony Trabert said a panel of senior staffers has begun looking into the matter.
“Our basic attitude at the moment is that [Hewitt] has not been indicted and is innocent until proven guilty, but we’re certainly concerned about it,’’ Trabert said. “We’re going to be diligent about it and see what we can discover.’’
Tennis fans who are familiar with the scandal have joined some of Hewitt’s contemporaries and the alleged victims’ supporters in demanding action.
“I’m appalled by what happened to these women as young girls,’’ said Kim Steinmetz, who in the 1980s was a professional doubles partner of Heather Crowe Conner, one of Hewitt’s alleged victims. “Come on, tennis authorities, step up and do something.’’
Hewitt, 71, in an interview in July with a Globe reporter, asked why Conner was “bringing it up now’’ and declined to comment on the allegations. In South Africa, the Weekend Post in Saturday’s edition quoted Hewitt as saying, “I only want to apologize if I offended anyone in any way. I have had a long, good career which I enjoyed. I do not want to end my career like this.’’
The paper said Hewitt otherwise declined to comment on the allegations.
At the Open, numerous international tennis writers expressed an interest in the scandal.
“It’s a shame this didn’t come out earlier, because, if the allegations are true, then Hewitt should have faced the consequences,’’ said Paul Newman, who writes for the Independent of London and serves as co-president of the International Tennis Writers Association.
Hewitt’s Hall of Fame candidacy might have been imperiled, several writers suggested, had his alleged victims not waited 35 years to come forward.
“If I had known about this, there would have been no way I would have voted for him,’’ said Sandra Harwitt, the only American on the 10-member board of the International Tennis Writers Association. She long has participated in Hall of Fame balloting, which is conducted by a panel of international media members.
Harwitt, who freelances for the Miami Herald among other publications, could not recall whether she voted for Hewitt (he exceeded the 75 percent favorable vote required for induction). She said she would need proof before she considered expelling him, but she noted that solving the case by legal standards might be impossible because of the passage of time.
Conner, who said she was 15 when Hewitt first had sex with her on the grounds of Masconomet Regional High School in Topsfield in 1976, was the first alleged victim to come forward last year when she filed a complaint with Topsfield police. She said she had planned to never go public but ultimately became so overwhelmed by the emotional damage that it also affected her professionally, causing her to take medical leaves from teaching at Reading Memorial High School and to resign from her elected position on the Pentucket Regional School Committee.
Conner’s supporters said holding Hewitt accountable would be especially difficult if tennis authorities chose not to pursue the allegations, as some have to date. A leader of the United States Tennis Association, which governs tennis in America, expressed serious concern about the case, but indicated the organization will not investigate it.
Jon Vegosen, chairman of the board and president of the USTA, said the Globe report “involving allegations of abuse of young girls by Bob Hewitt is very disturbing.’’
Vegosen also responded to widespread anger at John Korff, a director-at-large of the USTA, who registered displeasure in the initial Globe report with Conner waiting to come forward.
“Gee, it’s nice of the girl to pop up 35 years later,’’ Korff said. “Give me a break.’’
Vegosen said Korff’s quote “was extremely insensitive and inappropriate and does not reflect the USTA’s view of the seriousness of these charges.’’
Korff, in a note to the Globe, said, “My remarks were inappropriate considering the very serious nature of these allegations. Having now a full understanding of what Ms. Conner and others have reported, I am embarrassed by the insensitivity of my comments and sincerely regret any additional heartache the women mentioned in the story have suffered as a result of my comments.’’
Conner said Korff called to apologize for his remarks.
As for an inquiry into the Hewitt case, Vegosen said, “Any investigation of the allegations properly rests with law enforcement.’’
The response was similar in South Africa, where Hewitt allegedly sexually abused or harassed three of the women who detailed their experiences to the Globe. Multiple sources said South African tennis authorities knew of Hewitt’s alleged wrongdoing at the time and took no action until they quietly banned him in the 1980s from coaching women.
The South African Tennis Union, which formerly governed tennis there, disbanded in the mid-1990s. The organization was replaced by the South African Tennis Association, whose chief executive, Ian Smith, said he has no knowledge or records pertaining to Hewitt’s alleged involvement with underage girls.
“We certainly are reading these allegations with great concern and hope they are not true,’’ Smith said.
Smith said the organization has not received an official complaint about Hewitt in Smith’s seven years as chief executive.
“Accordingly, to my knowledge, there has been no need to conduct any investigation into the matter,’’ Smith said.
The Women’s Tennis Association, which privately has supported Conner as she copes with the emotional toll of the scandal, indicated it has no plans to investigate the allegations. Nor does the United States Professional Tennis Association, which lists Hewitt as one of its elite registered coaches, although there is no evidence he has been active in recent years.
Conner, after winning a Massachusetts high school singles title in 1977 and a national collegiate singles championship at the University of Indiana in ’82, was a regular on the professional circuit for several years, playing the likes of Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, and Chris Evert. While she welcomed the Hall of Fame’s inquiry, Conner expressed dismay at the preliminary unwillingness of other organizations to pursue the allegations.
“It makes me feel like I mean nothing,’’ she said. “I’m sad for the other victims and for other people who won’t come forward because it sends a message that we are not important enough to care about.’’
Carillo, who won the 1977 mixed doubles title at the French Open with John McEnroe, said Conner showed “some real guts’’ by coming forward.
“I hope it’s ultimately worth it for her and the other women,’’ Carillo said. “At the very least, I’m sure they want some of sort of validation, and if they don’t get it from Hewitt, then at least they deserve it from us, the tennis community.’’