Johannesburg - Four years after the investigation began - and almost a year since the rape charges were brought against him - former tennis legend Bob Hewitt has appeared in court.
In 2013, Hewitt was charged with the rape and sexual assault of three women believed to have been molested by the star when they were coached by him decades ago.
Hewitt, now 74, was a shadow of the confident champion who dominated doubles tennis as he entered the Boksburg Magistrate’s Court on Friday morning using a walking stick.
When he was charged in absentia in August, his lawyer Alwyn Griebenow told the court his client was too ill to appear.
Medical certificates have been handed in throughout his subsequent scheduled court appearances since then, saying the retired tennis pro was suffering from anxiety attacks, depression and still recovering from the effects of a stroke and heart attack.
Looking frail as he ambled into court on Friday morning, Hewitt was shielded by Griebenow, who asked the media to back off.
Among those waiting in court was one of Hewitt’s alleged victims, Suellen Sheehan, who at first appeared anxious at being brought face to face with her suspected rapist.
“I feel like I’m going to vomit,” she told The Star as she looked into the courtroom, immediately stepping back into the hallway outside.
Shuddering, she held on to the arm of a former school friend, Wayne Pyle.
Ten minutes later, she said she was mentally prepared to enter the courtroom and sat down just a few metres from Hewitt.
The court was told the warrant of arrest against Hewitt would be rescinded now that he had appeared in court.
As Hewitt was read the charges - two counts of rape and one of sexual assault - he stood perfectly still, and had to be asked twice if he understood the charges.
The first time, he didn’t respond to the question, but jumped slightly when asked again.
“Yes, your worship,” he responded.
A trial date was set for February 9, 2015.
Throughout proceedings, Sheehan stared intently at Hewitt’s unmoving back, seemingly unable to take her eyes off the man she had not seen in person for decades.
Hewitt at first ignored the court gallery, but as he moved from the dock, his eyes gravitated towards Sheehan, a lengthy gaze that she later said did not unnerve her.
Hewitt was escorted from the court followed by Sheehan, who met the representatives of Women and Men Against Child Abuse (WMACA) who had gathered outside in support of the case against him.
Smiling, she said: “We’re finally in the home stretch.”
Unable to articulate her feelings fully, Sheehan said seeing Hewitt had unburdened her.
“I feel light,” she said.
Tania Otto, operations manager at WMACA, said while the case had taken years to come to court, this occasion marked the beginning of finding justice for the survivors of Hewitt’s alleged crimes.
“The victims have been left very frustrated because of how long this has taken.
“But we hope that when the trial begins, there won’t be any more unforeseen delays,” said Otto.