Former tennis star Bob Hewitt minutes before he was sentenced to six years' imprisonment for rape and sexual assault. Picture: Masi Losi
Former tennis star Bob Hewitt minutes before he was sentenced to six years' imprisonment for rape and sexual assault. Picture: Masi Losi
Rape victim Suellen Sheehan has found the courage to play tennis again.
Rape victim Suellen Sheehan has found the courage to play tennis again.
Cape Town - Thirty five years after she was raped, Suellen Sheehan found the courage to pick-up her tennis racquet once again.

Over the years, the object had become heavy in her hands - a symbol of the weight of emotions she carried around, she said.

Sheehan would pick up the distinct odour of her rapist whenever she stepped on to a tennis court.

Sheehan was one of several women who came forward to press charges against convicted rapist and disgraced former Wimbledon doubles champion Bob Hewitt.

The 76 year-old Grand Slam doubles-champion was found guilty on two counts of rape and one of sexual assault in March last year. He abused three young women in the 1980s and 1990s while he acted as their coach.

Hewitt is serving a six-year jail term at the St Albans Correctional Facility in Port Elizabeth.

Sheehan, who testified during the trial, had been beset by angst and fear after Hewitt raped her.

But on the day she decided to push her fears aside, the game that had affected her life would once again prove to be a game changer.

With each blow she dealt the tennis ball, a piece of her confidence was restored until eventually she found serenity in her exhaustion.

“A tennis court was a horrible place for me, but now it is a happy place. When I hit the ball, I realised that I can be good again. I could be anything. I could be a winner - despite his stench.”

For Sheehan, now 47, her abuse was a vivid memory. Sheehan changed her name to escape the realities of the 12-year-old girl who could not emotionally process what had happened to her. But she could not escape the horrors in her sleep.

“He raped me and it made a massive difference in my life. People have said that I am running away from it by changing my name, but in a way I am leaving it behind. Some people will never get the justice that they deserve but a lot of healing came from me falling in love with tennis again,” she said.

She said Hewitt had groomed her for more than a year before he raped her.

“It was a cool winter’s day. Coach collected me from school and drove me to tennis practice - except we were the only ones there.

“The whole time in the car he was having inappropriate conversations with me about sex. He made me touch him. He raped me and made me clean up after myself. After my rape, I had to march back onto the court and play tennis for him.”

During the trial, Sheehan was asked whether she consented. “I told them I did not consent. He told me such amazing things - that I was the best tennis player. It hurt me deeply when it came out in court that he did not think I was any good.

“I suffered from chronic depression all my life. I suffer from a terrible sleeping disorder. I struggled with relationships - I was only married for three months. This was enough time to have my only son.

“I think I primarily suffered from a lack of self love, my mother did not believe me when I told her I was raped and I had to continue training with my rapist years after the abuse.”

She said the sexual harrassment continued but Hewitt did not rape her again.

One of the biggest issues Sheehan had to grapple with during her childhood was the “crushing feeling” of abandonment.

“I felt as though he had abandoned me. I carried that around for years until I started dealing with it. That was when the healing started. To women in a similar situation, you have to get to a point when you are ready to deal with it,” she said.

Sheehan’s breakthrough happened when she took her first tentative steps onto a tennis court, holding the hand of her childhood friend. She said she broke free of the “chrysalis” that enclosed her and emerged as a “butterfly”.

“I was free from the weight of the pain,” she said.

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