WASHINGTON, December 2, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)
The Women’s Tennis Association has immediately suspended all of its tournaments in China, including Hong Kong, in response to ongoing concerns about the safety and well-being of Chinese professional tennis player Peng Shuai.
The announcement, which affects nine upcoming tournaments scheduled for next year in China, was made on Wednesday by WTA chairman and CEO Steve Simon, and it had the full support of the WTA board of directors.
The decision, which will mean hundreds of millions of dollars of lost revenue, came as a follow up to the Nov. 19 threat Simon issued to pull the plug on the WTA’s events from China after questioning the authenticity of an email that was circulated via Chinese state media and attributed to Peng, 35, a former doubles World No. 1. Simon called for a transparent investigation into Peng’s Nov. 2 allegation in a social media post on Weibo that she had been the victim of a sexual assault by Zhang Gaoli, former vice premier of China.
Following Peng’s declaration, her message was swiftly removed from the Internet and the topic of discussion was censored in China. She was unheard from for more than two weeks. Soon, the hashtags #WhereIsPengShuai and #FreePengShuai became hot button topics across western social media channels such as Twitter and Instagram. Meanwhile, Zhang hasn’t addressed Peng’s allegations publicly.
— wta (@WTA) November 18, 2021
Although Chinese officials recently released video footage of Peng and arranged a Nov. 21 video call with International Olympic Committee head Thomas Bach, Simon noted it remained unclear whether Peng is free and able to speak freely without any intimidation or interference from Chinese officials.
“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,” Simon wrote in a statement Wednesday. “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.
“None of this is acceptable nor can it become acceptable. 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 to the WTA and its players.”
“With the full support of the WTA Board of Directors, I am announcing the immediate suspension of all WTA tournaments in China, including Hong Kong.”
— wta (@WTA) December 1, 2021
Previously, the WTA had identified China as a key area for growth and had secured a 10-year deal for the WTA Finals to be held in Shenzhen through 2028 with a significant increase in prize money. With no tour events held in China the past two years due to the coronavirus pandemic, last year’s WTA Finals was cancelled and this year’s was relocated to Guadalajara, Mexico.
Across social media, reaction to the WTA’s decision and Simon’s announcement was swift and positive:
• Billie Jean King, Hall of Famer player and co-founder of the WTA: “I applaud Steve Simon and the WTA leadership for taking a strong stand on defending human rights in China and around the world. The WTA is on the right side of history in supporting our players. This is another reason why women’s tennis is the leader in women’s sports.”
• Darren Cahill, who formerly coached Simona Halep and is an ESPN tennis commentator: “The WTA has shown an incredible amount of care, concern and leadership through this. Well done to Steve and his team. Big props also to the WTA Player Council who speak on behalf of the players as this decision affects all players but is the right thing to do.”
• Alizé Cornet, French women’s professional: “What a leader.”
• John Millman, Australian men’s professional: “Really strong stance. Far bigger things in the world than a game of tennis.”
• Rennae Stubbs, who coaches Samantha Stosur and is an ESPN tennis commentator: “The stance from the WTA and Steve Simon … sends a very strong message to the CTA and the Chinese government. That the WTA stands behind its players’ health and safety. We cannot honestly play tournaments there if we can’t get answers on one of our own’s safety.”
• Gill Gross, Tennis Channel host: “One of the most significant examples of morality over profit I’ve ever seen. Now pressure on the ATP to follow, and other sports too. … Also applaud Simon for acknowledging the tragedy in this. Chinese tennis fans and players (funded by government) never did anything to deserve this.”