Women’s tennis events to make China return after Peng boycott

WTA gives up its boycott, making little progress on the situation that spurred it to move tournaments out of China.

China's Peng Shuai in action during the match against Japan's Nao Hibino
The WTA had received widespread praise for suspending its tournaments in the country after Peng Shuai said in a now-deleted 2021 social media post that a senior former Chinese government official had sexually assaulted her [File: Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters]

The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) will bring its events back to China later this year, ending a boycott instituted in late 2021 over concerns about the safety of former player Peng Shuai after she accused a high-ranking government official there of sexual assault.

The WTA, in a statement on Thursday, said it would lift its suspension of tournaments in China in September despite making little progress on the situation that sparked the boycott.

The WTA had received widespread praise for suspending its tournaments in China after Peng, in a social media post in November 2021, said former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli forced her to have sex.

Chinese authorities quickly took the post down.

Peng then briefly disappeared from public view and later denied making the accusation, sparking fears for her safety.

“After 16 months of suspended tennis competition in China and sustained efforts at achieving our original requests, the situation has shown no sign of changing,” said the statement.

“We have concluded we will never fully secure those goals, and it will be our players and tournaments who ultimately will be paying an extraordinary price for their sacrifices.

“For these reasons, the WTA is lifting its suspension of the operation of tournaments in the People’s Republic of China and will resume tournaments in China this September.”

In January, the WTA said it was confident Peng was “safe and comfortable” in Beijing but still wanted a private meeting with the now 37-year-old before returning to the region, adding it would not compromise on its founding principles.

Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said after the WTA’s announcement that the women’s tennis body deserves credit for enforcing the suspension, “but the decision to move ahead with the tournament will be a huge disappointment for the Chinese human rights community”.

“It’s important to keep Peng Shuai’s case in the public eye. What she did initially was extraordinary. It gave the world a glimpse into the corruption and abuses at the very top of the Chinese government. For it, she is still paying a price. Even given the outcome, what she did and what the WTA did initially was not in vain,” Wang said.

She added that the decision to lift the suspension “is not surprising, though, given the money at stake and the record of other international businesses in China”.

WTA’s financial loss

Peng’s post caused an international outcry over her safety, and the WTA’s decision to suspend events in China was expected to have cost the tour hundreds of millions of dollars in broadcasting and sponsorship.

She last made a public appearance at the Beijing Winter Olympics last year and conducted an interview with the French publication L’Equipe.

WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon said in an interview with The Associated Press that what he sought was never delivered – a chance for someone from the tour to meet Peng and a full and transparent investigation into the Grand Slam doubles champion’s accusations.

Despite this, he said the decision was made, with input from player and tournament representatives, to return to the country.

“The stance that we took at the time was appropriate. And we stand by that. But 16 months into this, we’re convinced that our requests will not be met. And to continue with the same strategy doesn’t make sense,” Simon said from Florida, where the WTA is based.

“So we needed to look at a different approach. With this, our members believe it’s time to resume the mission in China, where we believe we can continue to make a positive difference, as we have for the last 20 years, while at the same time making sure that Peng is not forgotten. By returning, hopefully more progress can be made.”

Assurances received

Although there have been no reports of Peng sightings in public since carefully orchestrated appearances during the Beijing Olympics in February 2022, Simon said the WTA has “received assurances from people who are close to her, that we’ve been in contact with, that she is safe and living with her family in Beijing.”

He added that the tour has been assured by the Chinese Tennis Association, the sport’s national governing body, that “there won’t be any issues with our athletes or our staff while they’re competing within the region”.

He called the change in course “an organisational decision” and noted that “the great majority of the athletes were supportive and wanted to see a return … and felt it was time to go back”.

Peng won doubles trophies at Wimbledon and the French Open and reached the top of the doubles rankings. In singles, she was a US Open semifinalist and was ranked as high as 14th.

The International Tennis Federation (ITF), which will stage five women’s and four men’s events in June, welcomed the WTA’s statement.

“We have received reassurance that it is safe for players, their families and teams to compete in China, so we are pleased to have resumed our events there,” the body’s President David Haggerty said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies