19 May 2015

Tennis champ jailed over child sex assaults

7:33 am on 19 May 2015

Australian-born former tennis champion Bob Hewitt has been sentenced to six years in jail in South Africa for raping and assaulting young girls he coached in the 1980s and 1990s.

A Johannesburg court found the former Grand Slam tennis star guilty of two counts of rape and one of sexual assault in March.

Australian-born former tennis Grand Slam champion Bob Hewitt at court in Johannesburg.

Australian-born former tennis Grand Slam champion Bob Hewitt at court in Johannesburg. Photo: AFP

Judge Bam said that if Hewitt, 75, had been aged 50 when he was convicted he would have been sentenced to 20 years in jail, adding that Hewitt was solely to blame for his fate.

"The effective period of imprisonment is six years," Judge Bert Bam told the High Court in Pretoria.

"Justice must be seen to be done, even to ageing offenders and even after the expiration of many years after the crime."

Hewitt had pleaded not guilty to all charges at trial.

During the case, the court heard Hewitt told one of his alleged victims that "rape is enjoyable in all cases".

The prosecution insisted that Hewitt's crimes were serious enough to deserve jail time, even though he suffers from a heart condition.

"There was a huge public outcry, not just because of his status in society ... but because child abuse being so rife in this country, this is not a new phenomenon," said state prosecutor Carina Coetzee.

"It's a victory for justice and women and children," said National Prosecuting Authority spokesman Velekhaya Mgobhozi.

"It shows everyone is equal before the law."

"We're just trying to digest it," said Suellen Sheehan, one of Hewitt's victims who was in the courtroom for the sentencing.

Outside the courthouse, activists against abuse against children had hung posters on the gates that read "child rape = life sentence".

The former champion has also been dogged by allegations of sexual abuse in the United States where he once lived.

Hewitt won nine Grand Slam doubles and six Grand Slam mixed doubles titles in the 1960s and 1970s.

He also reached the semi-finals of the men's singles at the Australian Open three times, and won the Davis Cup with South Africa in 1974 after settling there.

He was added to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1992, but his name was removed in 2012 after the sexual abuse allegations came to light.

Hewitt grew up in Dubbo, but moved to South Africa in the 1970s with his wife.

Before he was sentenced Hewitt told the court that he had suffered a stroke in 2010 and a heart attack in 2011.

He was expressionless as he received his sentence.

Following the judgement, he slumped low in the dock, speaking to his lawyers with his arm around his wife Delialle.

"I have nothing to say," Hewitt told AFP in a low voice, clenching a tissue in his hand, after the court adjourned until Tuesday when the defence will seek leave to appeal.

Earlier Ms Hewitt pleaded for the judge not to send her husband to jail.

"I have never had to beg before but I am asking you from the bottom of my heart to please let my husband return to the farm as I could not survive without him," she said, sobbing with grief.