In a significant development, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) announced the immediate suspension of all tournaments in China following concerns on the well-being of former doubles world number one Peng Shuai and the safety of other players.
The decision by the WTA to walk away from one of its biggest markets was applauded by many leading figures in the tennis world.
Peng’s whereabouts became a matter of international concern after she posted a message on social media in early November, alleging that China’s former Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli had sexually assaulted her.
Neither Zhang nor the Chinese government have commented on Peng’s allegation with the topic being blocked from discussion on China’s heavily censored internet.
“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,” said WTA chief executive Steve Simon in a statement. “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.”
The Chinese foreign ministry known for its infamous wolf diplomacy, did not immediately respond to requests for comments.
The development comes ahead of China preparing to host the Winter Olympics in February 2022 midst growing calls by global rights groups to boycott the Beijing Olympics over China’s gross violation of human rights.
“The WTA has been clear on what is needed here, and we repeat our call for a full and transparent investigation – without censorship – into Peng Shuai’s sexual assault accusation,” said Simon.
“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. I will not and cannot let that happen”.
“The WTA has chosen to be on the right side of history in defending the rights of our players,” said Billie Jean King, the founder of the WTA. “This is yet another reason why women’s tennis is the leader in women’s sports.”
Martina Navratilova also weighed in with her support suggesting that the IOC should “take note”.
Novak Djokovic, men’s world number one, who recently co-founded a players’ union aiming to represent both male and female professionals, also backed the move.
“I support fully WTA’s stance because we don’t have enough information about Shuai Peng and her well-being,” said Djokovic. “It’s life of a tennis player that is in question here, so we, as the tennis community, need to stand together.”
“This type of leadership is courageous and what is needed to ensure the rights of all individuals are protected and all voices are heard,” said the United States Tennis Association in a statement.
WTA has yet to publish its 2022 tour calendar.
“Unless China takes the steps we have asked for, we cannot put our players and staff at risk by holding events in China,” said Simon. “China’s leaders have left the WTA with no choice. I remain hopeful that our pleas will be heard and the Chinese authorities will take steps to legitimately address this issue.”