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Peng Shuai: WTA suspends tournaments in China over concerns for tennis player

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All WTA tournaments have been suspended in China over concerns for the safety of player Peng Shuai.

The head of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) said it was taking the step after Peng, a Grand Slam doubles champion, accused a former high-ranking government official in China of sexual assault.

Peng dropped out of public view after raising the allegations about former vice premier Zhang Gaoli in a social media posting that was quickly taken down by Chinese authorities.

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Sky’s Tom Cheshire follows the footsteps of Peng Shuai and visits the places she is said to have been.

“Unfortunately, the leadership in China has not addressed this very serious issue in any credible way,” WTA chairman and CEO Steve Simon wrote in a statement distributed by the tour.

“While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe, and not subject to censorship, coercion, and intimidation.”

Mr Simon repeated his call for a “full and transparent investigation – without censorship” into Peng’s accusations and took an unusually strong stand against China, which was supposed to be the site of several tennis tournaments next year, including the prestigious season-ending WTA Finals.

“In good conscience, I don’t see how I can ask our athletes to compete there when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault,” he said.

“Given the current state of affairs, I am also greatly concerned about the risks that all of our players and staff could face if we were to hold events in China in 2022.”

Beijing is set to host the Winter Olympics beginning on 4 February, and International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach said last month that he had spoken with Peng on a video call.

Peng Shuai in an image purportedly posted by the missing Chinese tennis player
Image:
Peng Shuai in an image purportedly posted by the missing Chinese tennis player in November

Analysis by Tom Parmenter, sports correspondent

However much they had weighed up this decision it was still a big shot for the WTA to hit.

Boycotting one of their biggest markets is massive not least because it has so many knock-on effects – from funding, to supporters, future tournaments and other Chinese players – even the WTA’s own Asia-Pacific HQ is in Beijing.

This though is an organisation that was formed by Billie Jean King and eight other trailblazers in 1973.

It was built on solid principles of equality and women’s rights – principles that would mean very little if they didn’t take decisive action when it mattered.

The current WTA leadership have decided that time is now.

The reaction in Beijing will be crucial in determining what happens next to Peng Shuai – and how long the tennis boycott she has inspired remains in place.

The IOC did not release video or a transcript of the exchange and said only that Bach reported she said she was well.

The organisation said in a statement that Peng appeared to be “doing fine” and that she had requested privacy.

The IOC did not explain how the call was arranged, although it has worked closely with the Chinese Olympic Committee and government officials to organise the upcoming Olympics.

Critics have suggested Peng would not have called the IOC if she was truly free to speak.

“If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug, then the basis on which the WTA was founded – equality for women – would suffer an immense setback,” Mr Simon said.

“I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players.”

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