Loss of China events over Peng could go past 2022: WTA

Published December 3, 2021
A file photo of WTA President and CEO Steve Simon. — AP
A file photo of WTA President and CEO Steve Simon. — AP

LAUSANNE: The suspension of all WTA tournaments in China because of concerns about the safety of Peng Shuai, a Grand Slam doubles champion who accused a former government official there of sexual assault, could result in cancellations of those events beyond 2022, the head of the women’s professional tennis tour said on Wednesday.

“We’re hopeful we get to the right place, but we are prepared, if it continues as it is which hasn’t been productive to date that we will not be operating in the region,” WTA President and CEO Steve Simon told The Associated Press in a video call from California. “This is an organisational effort that is really addressing something that’s about what’s right and wrong.”

He said the move to put a halt to the tours play in China, including Hong Kong, came with the backing of the WTA Board of Directors, players, tournaments and sponsors. It is the strongest public stand against China taken by a sports body and one that could cost the WTA millions of dollars.

Peng dropped out of public view after raising the allegations about former vice premier Zhang Gaoli in a Nov 2 social media posting that was quickly taken down by Chinese authorities.

In the month since, Simon has made repeated calls for China to carry out an inquiry into the 35-year-old Peng’s accusations and to allow the WTA to communicate directly with the former top-ranked doubles player and owner of titles at Wimbledon and the French Open.

“Our approach to this and our request to the authorities are consistent and they’ll stay there. We definitely would like to have our own discussion with Peng and be comfortable that she’s truly safe and free and has not been censored, intimidated or anything like that,” Simon said. “We still haven’t been able to have that conversation to have the comfort that what we’re seeing isn’t being orchestrated, to date. The second element of that is that we want a full and transparent without any level of censorship investigation on the allegations that were made.”

China typically hosts about 10 womens tennis tournaments each year, including the prestigious season-ending WTA Finals, which are scheduled to be held there for a decade. The nation is a source of billions of dollars in income for various sports entities based elsewhere, including the WTA (headquartered in St. Petersburg, Florida), the NBA (run out of New York) and the International Olympic Commi­ttee (Lausanne, Switzerland).

Simon said the suspension, announced Wednesday via a statement from him issued by the tour, means that tournaments could still end up being staged in China if its government follows through with his requests. If not, the events could be moved to other countries, as happened this year, when the tours Asian swing was called off because of COVID-19 concerns; the WTA Finals, for example, were shifted to Guadalajara, Mexico, last month.

The WTA drew criticism on Thursday from China for its decision which comes as Beijing prepares to host the Winter Olympics in February. Global rights groups and others have called for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics over China’s human rights record.

Many leading figures in the tennis world applauded the WTA’s decision to walk away from one of its biggest markets.

Asked about the matter at a regular briefing in Beijing on Thursday, foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin did not directly comment on the WTA’s move, but said China “opposes the politicisation of sports”.

While Beijing has remained largely silent over the Peng scandal, The Chinese Tennis Association expressed “indignation and firm opposition” to the WTA’s announcement while the Global Times newspaper published by the ruling Communist Party’s People’s Daily took aim at the WTA.

In an editorial on its Twitter account on Thursday, which is not accessible within China, the paper accused the WTA of “bringing politics into women’s tennis”, categorising it among “betrayers of the Olympic spirit”.

The English-language tabloid added, “Some forces in the West are instigating a boycott against the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.”

The International Olympic Committee said it held a second video call with Peng on Wednesday, following one late last month.

The IOC, whose president Thomas Bach spoke to Peng for 30 minutes on November 21 in one of the first contacts that a Western organisation had with her.

“We have offered her wide-ranging support, will stay in regular touch with her, and have already agreed on a personal meeting in January,” it said in a statement on Thursday.

Peng appeared to be “safe and well, given the difficult situation she is in,” it added.

Bach faced criticism after the first call for failing to make demands about Peng’s safety and the IOC defended its approach in a statement on Thursday.

“We are using ‘quiet diplomacy’ which, given the circumstances and based on the experience of governments and other organisations, is indicated to be the most promising way to proceed effectively in such humanitarian matters,” the IOC said.

Tennis, stars including men’s number one Novak Djokovic and women’s tour founder Billie Jean King, threw their support behind the WTA’s move.

Djokovic called the WTA’s stance “very bold and very courageous”, while 12-time Grand Slam singles winner King tweeted that the WTA was “on the right side of history.”

Tennis great Martina Navratilova challenged the IOC to respond, writing on Twitter that “so far I can barely hear you!!!”

Published in Dawn, December 3rd, 2021

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