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Women Tennis Association takes on China as Serena, Osaka join #WhereIsPengShuai chorus

Screenshots of Peng’s post on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of microblogging site Twitter, detailed an incident three years ago when Zhang invited her to play tennis with him and his wife and then sexually assaulted her in his house.

By: Express News Service |
Updated: November 19, 2021 1:39:34 pm
Peng ShuaiChinese professional tennis star Peng Shuai and former Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli. (AP/File)

Still unclear about the condition and whereabouts of former top-ranked doubles star Peng Shuai, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) is preparing to end all business deals with China. Shuai – a two-time doubles Grand Slam winner – had posted on social media on November 2 that she had been sexually assaulted by former Chinese vice premier Zhang Gaoli. Since then, the player has disappeared, leaving the WTA and the entire tennis tour fearing for her safety.

Deals with China

The WTA had signed a lucrative deal with China, where a number of important tour matches take place. Those events, based on the sporting body’s latest stance, may soon end.

“We are at a crossroads with our relationship with China and operating our business over there,” WTA chief executive Steve Simon told CNN.

“We’re definitely willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it because this is certainly, this is bigger than the business. Women need to be respected and not censored.”

In 2018, WTA signed a record 10-year deal — estimated to be worth close to $1 billion according to SportsBusiness Journal — making Shenzhen the host for the year-end flagship event featuring the top eight singles and doubles players. The lucrative bid fended off rival cities including Manchester, England and doubled the event’s prize money to $14 million.

The deal was the biggest ever struck in women’s sport — eclipsing WTA’s own six-year, $88 million title sponsorship agreement with Sony Ericsson in 2005.

The allegations

Shuai posted on social media that Zhang sexually assaulted her despite several refusals.

Zhang, 75, was a member of the Communist Party’s seven-person Politiburo Standing Committee — the nation’s top ruling body headed by leader Xi Jinping — from 2012 to 2017 and retired as vice premier in 2018.

Peng Shuai Peng Shuai in action during women’s singles match at the China Open tennis tournament in Beijing in 2016. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Screenshots of Peng’s post on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of microblogging site Twitter, detailed an incident three years ago when Zhang invited her to play tennis with him and his wife and then sexually assaulted her in his house. “I never consented that afternoon, crying all the time,” the 35-year-old wrote, adding that she also had a consensual relationship with Zhang and that she could not produce evidence to substantiate her accusation.

“I know that for someone of your eminence, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, you’ve said that you’re not afraid,” Peng wrote, “but even if it’s just me, like an egg hitting a rock, or a moth to the flame, courting self-destruction, I’ll tell the truth about you.”

According to The New York Times, Peng’s post was taken down within an hour and searches of her name, as well as “tennis”, appeared to be temporarily blocked.

Search for Shuai

“Peng Shuai, and all women, deserve to be heard, not censored. Her accusation about the conduct of a former Chinese leader involving a sexual assault must be treated with the utmost seriousness,” Simon said in a statement last week.

However, the player has been entirely missing since despite the WTA trying to get in touch with her. Simon had stated earlier that he was informed by the Chinese tennis federation that Shuai was safe, but made it clear that neither he nor any player or WTA official had spoken to Shuai personally.

China’s state-run news agency CGTN on Wednesday uploaded a statement that it claimed was from Shuai. The statement deemed that the allegations were false and that Shuai was indeed safe.

“Regarding the recent news released on the official website of the WTA, the content has not been confirmed or verified by myself and it was released without my consent. The news in that release, including the allegation of sexual assault, is not true. I am not missing, nor am I unsafe. I have just been resting at home and everything is fine,” the statement read.

Simon though wasn’t convinced about the authenticity of the letter, claiming: “The statement released today by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts,” Simon wrote in a statement. “I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her.”

Tour raises calls for her search

The #WhereIsPengShuai has been raging on Twitter, with tennis players, past and present, being the prominent users of the message.

Former World No 1 and 23-time Slam winner Serena Williams also tweeted the hashtag along with the message: “devastated and shocked to hear about the news of my peer, Peng Shuai”. “I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible. This must be investigated and we must not stay silent. Sending love to her and her family during this incredibly difficult time.”

Naomi Osaka also tweeted: “Censorship is never ok at any cost, I hope Peng Shuai and her family are safe and ok. I’m in shock of the current situation and I’m sending love and light her way. #whereispengshuai.”

Similar messages have come in from the likes of, but not limited to, Kim Clijsters, Patrick McEnroe, Martina Navratilova, Stan Wawrinka, Alize Cornet, Nicolas Mahut and Agnieszka Radwanska.

Novak Djokovic said, as reported by Sky Sports: “Honestly, it’s shocking that she’s missing, more so that it’s someone that I have seen on the tour in the previous years quite a few times. It’s not much more to say than hope that she will be found, that she’s OK. It’s just terrible.”

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