Women’s tennis returns to China after Peng Shuai boycott

Hong Kong

The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) launched its first tournament in China in more than three years on Monday, ending its boycott following the uncertain fate of tennis star Peng Shuai.

Peng, one of China’s most recognizable sports figures, feared being held incommunicado by the Chinese government in 2021 after accusing retired Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of forcing her to have sex during an intermittent relationship lasting several years.

Following the accusation, Peng disappeared from public view for more than two weeks, prompting the world’s biggest tennis stars and the United Nations to demand answers about her whereabouts – as well as a thorough investigation into his allegations against Zhang.

Peng, a three-time Olympian and Grand Slam doubles champion, later denied filing a sexual assault complaint. But many international observers and sports leaders continued to raise questions about Peng’s safety and ability to speak freely, given the Communist Party’s well-documented record of crushing dissent.

Shortly after the controversy erupted in late 2021, the WTA announced it would suspend all tournaments in China, with chairman and CEO Steve Simon saying he had “serious doubts that (Peng) is free, safe and free from censorship, coercion and intimidation.” .”

At the time, Simon said the WTA would not return until there was “a full and transparent investigation” without censorship and until there was enough evidence to allay concerns over Peng’s safety and whereabouts.

But despite the lack of such an investigation, Simon announced last April that the suspension, which he describes as a “principled position”, would end by September.

The WTA had already canceled its tournaments in China in 2020 due to travel restrictions linked to Covid-19.

“After 16 months of suspension of tennis competitions in China and continued efforts to respond to our initial requests, the situation has shown no signs of changing,” he said at the time. “We have concluded that we will never fully achieve these goals, and it will be our players and our tournaments that will ultimately pay an extraordinary price for their sacrifices.”

He added that the WTA has been in contact with people close to Peng and “is assured that she is living safely with her family in Beijing.” Peng “cannot be forgotten through this process,” he said in the statement.

The Guangzhou Open began Monday and continued Saturday in southern China, with another tournament scheduled for later in September in the Chinese city of Ningbo, and finally the China Open in Beijing from September 30 to October 8.

Peng last appeared in February 2022 when she met with Olympic officials at the Beijing Winter Games and then was interviewed by independent French sports news site L’Equipe.

The WTA’s decision to resume play was criticized by some human rights groups and athletes. International group Human Rights Watch called the decision a “great disappointment,” urging the world to “keep Peng Shuai’s case in the public eye.”

And French player Alize Cornet, one of the first players to support Peng with the widely circulated hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai, will not travel to China to compete – although she did not directly reference Peng, Reuters reported , quoting the French newspaper Le Parisien.

Cornet had posted an Instagram story saying his season would not resume until later in October, the newspaper said.

“Staying true to my beliefs and paying attention to my health, I have decided not to play in China this year,” Cornet said, according to Reuters.


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