NEWPORT, R.I. - Visitors to the International Tennis Hall of Fame find centuries of the sport’s history at their fingertips - interactive tributes to 220 stars such as Pete Sampras and Steffi Graf, Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson.
When they reach a touch-screen display honoring South African tennis legend Bob Hewitt, they learn he was one of the most “enduringly elegant’’ doubles players of all time. There is no mention of Hewitt’s purported secret life.
Missing is any reference to the nearly dozen women on three continents who last year accused him of sexually abusing them between the 1970s and early 1990s when he was their coach and they were underage.
Nine months after the hall announced it would investigate the allegations - “We’re going to be diligent about it and see what we can discover,’’ vowed Tony Trabert, the hall’s president at the time - it turns out there is no inquiry. Executive director Mark Stenning told the Globe that the hall scrapped the investigation in favor of drafting a policy to address similar issues. He said the board will consider the proposal, which he declined to explain, in July.
The decision, a striking contrast to the US Gymnastic Hall of Fame’s swift expulsion last year of an inductee facing sexual abuse allegations, has angered Hewitt’s alleged victims and several prominent former players.
“Sadly, people are afraid to stand up for right, good, and honesty,’’ said Heather Crowe Conner, who had just turned 15 in 1976 when Hewitt, then playing for the Boston Lobsters, allegedly first had sex with her near the tennis courts at Masconomet Regional High School. “They are afraid of hurting people. But the person they are protecting is not the one who needs protecting.’’
To the women and those who support them, the hall of fame’s backpedaling is emblematic of leaders throughout professional tennis distancing themselves from Hewitt’s alleged misconduct and the women’s pain. The scandal looms as the tennis community prepares for the spring and summer classics - the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open - and the hall of fame’s annual induction ceremony in July.
Hewitt, 72, has not been charged with a crime. The statute of limitations has expired in the United States on most of the allegations. The statute does not apply in South Africa, where the National Prosecuting Authority is investigating complaints from at least five of Hewitt’s former tennis students. The women filed the complaints after a Globe report last September detailed Hewitt’s history of alleged sexual misconduct.
Hewitt, in a Globe interview last summer in South Africa, generally declined to comment, other than to say, “I just want to forget about it.’’ He has not spoken publicly since South Africa’s Weekend Post quoted him in September as saying, “I only want to apologize if I offended anyone in any way.’’
Soon after the Globe report, Conner joined four other alleged victims - three from South Africa and one from New Zealand - in asking the hall of fame to remove Hewitt, a 15-time majors doubles champion who starred on South Africa’s Davis Cup teams in the 1960s and ’70s.
“We do not dispute his ability as a tennis player and the titles he won, but we dispute any recognition being granted to a man who has initiated and participated in such evil acts with innocent minor girls,’’ the women wrote.
Stenning responded to Twiggy Tolken, who was 12 when Hewitt allegedly sexually abused her in South Africa in 1980.
“It is my hope that our counsel will be in touch with you in the very near future,’’ the executive director wrote, according to a Sept. 28 e-mail that Tolken provided the Globe.
Two months later, the women had yet to hear from the hall of fame. The silence prompted Tolken to send Stenning copies of love letters Hewitt purportedly wrote her when she was 13.
“The integrity of the International Tennis Hall of Fame is at stake if nothing is done,’’ wrote Tolken, who now lives in New Zealand.
Still, the women received no response. Nor did they hear from the hall after nearly 250 people from 14 countries signed a petition calling for Hewitt’s expulsion.
The Globe recently informed Hewitt’s alleged victims that the hall has shelved their request to expel him.
“I am so disheartened and disillusioned,’’ said Suellen Sheehan, who was 12 when Hewitt allegedly first had sex with her in South Africa. “Their decision is despicable.’’
The hall’s president, Stan Smith, refused to comment, as did board chairman Chris Clouser.
But Smith’s longtime doubles partner, Bob Lutz, had plenty to say about the Hall’s inaction.
“The whole thing is sickening,’’ said Lutz, who won dozens of doubles titles with Smith in the 1970s and ’80s and played with and against Hewitt. “Reggie Bush lost the Heisman Trophy for much less than Hewitt is accused of doing as a player. Hewitt should be kicked out of the hall.’’
Last September, the Orange County Register published similar allegations against Don Peters, who coached the record-setting 1984 US Olympic women’s gymnastics team and was inducted into the sport’s hall of fame in 1992, the same year Hewitt entered the tennis hall. Peters was accused of sexually abusing girls he coached in the 1980s.
Like Hewitt, Peters faced no criminal charges, the statute of limitations having expired. Yet the gymnastics hall of fame expelled him only seven weeks after the newspaper report. A spokeswoman said the organization did not want to be seen as condoning Peters’s alleged misconduct despite his coaching achievements.
In Newport, the induction criteria include “integrity, sportsmanship, and character.’’ Yet the tennis hall of fame traditionally has placed greater emphasis on athletic performance than personal behavior.
Tennis Hall of Famers include Andre Agassi, who has acknowledged lying to tennis authorities to avoid punishment after he tested positive for an illegal substance (crystal methamphetamine); Boris Becker, who was sentenced to two years probation and fined $300,000 for tax evasion in his native Germany; Vitas Gerulaitis, who reportedly was implicated, but not charged, in a cocaine distribution conspiracy; and Bill Tilden, who was twice convicted of inappropriate sexual contact with young men after his playing career.
The hall’s marquee inductee this summer will be Jennifer Capriati, who was arrested in the 1990s for shoplifting and marijuana possession.
None of those hall of famers was accused of damaging as many lives as Hewitt.
However, the tennis hall of fame is not alone in honoring inductees who have been accused of wrongdoing.
Mike Tyson, a convicted rapist, is a boxing hall of famer. O.J. Simpson, currently imprisoned for armed robbery and kidnapping, is a football hall of famer, as is Lawrence Taylor, who pleaded guilty last year to a charge of sexual misconduct involving a 16-year-old girl.
In Cooperstown, Duke Snider and Willie McCovey remain baseball hall of famers despite their 1995 convictions for federal tax fraud. And the Baseball Writers Association of America has taken no action against Bill Conlin, a hall of fame columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News who resigned last year after three women and a man alleged he sexually molested them when they were children.
Stenning refused to say whether the policy for dealing with alleged misconduct, if adopted, would apply retroactively to Hewitt. His silence provided no comfort to Hewitt’s alleged victims, who said they feel abandoned by professional tennis.
To Amanda Wienhold, who was 14 when Hewitt allegedly began sexually abusing her in South Africa, he remains a haunting figure who has yet to be held accountable.
“He still makes me feel scared and sick to my stomach like the little girl I was years ago!’’ Wienhold wrote the Globe. “Hopefully, someone will listen. I really need to heal.’’Bob Hohler can be reached at email@example.com.