The women’s professional tennis tour is ending its suspension of tournaments in China that was initiated in late 2021 over concerns about Grand Slam doubles champion Peng Shuai’s well-being.
The WTA announced Thursday that it will return to competition in China this season, even though two of its key requests were never met: a chance to meet with Peng, and a thorough, transparent investigation of her sexual assault accusations against a high-ranking Chinese government official.
WHO IS PENG SHUAI?
Peng is a former pro tennis player who reached No. 1 in the WTA rankings in doubles in 2014 and made it as high as No. 14 in singles in 2011. In doubles, Peng won major championships at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014; her best Grand Slam showing in singles was a run to the semifinals at the U.S. Open in 2014. In all, she won 23 WTA titles in doubles and two in singles; she also represented China at three Summer Olympics. Her career prize money is listed by the WTA as more than $9.5 million. Now 37, Peng last competed at a tournament in Doha, Qatar, in February 2020.
WHY WAS THERE GLOBAL CONCERN FOR PENG’S WELL-BEING?
Peng dropped out of public view after saying in a social media post in November 2021 that former vice premier Zhang Gaoli forced her to have sex. Chinese authorities quickly removed the post. News of the first #MeToo case to reach the political realm in China was not reported by local media and online discussion of it was highly censored. “Where is Peng Shuai?” became a trending topic on social media as concern and outrage grew. Peng eventually tried to recant her accusations, including in a controlled interview at the Beijing Olympics in February 2022, and she made some orchestrated appearances during those Winter Games. But there have not been reports of public sightings of her since then.
WHEN AND WHY DID THE WTA STOP HOLDING TOURNAMENTS IN CHINA?
The WTA, which is based in St. Petersburg, Florida, pulled its events from China in December 2021, saying it would not return until someone from the tour could meet with Peng and until her allegations were properly investigated. Neither of those things has happened. In the past, about 10 women’s pro tennis tournaments were held each year in China, generating millions of dollars in revenue for the WTA.
WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon said in an interview with The Associated Press that “what has changed with it is that we have 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. … First and foremost, her safety is the first priority, and we do have assurances that is the case.” Simon also said he hopes “more progress can be made” by returning to China, because the current strategy of staying away “doesn’t make sense.”
ARE FEMALE TENNIS PLAYERS OK WITH THE RETURN TO CHINA?
Simon called it an “organizational decision” that included discussion and feedback with players and tournament officials. “We’ve got players from over 80 countries, so there’s no shortage of different views of the world and positions on issues and topics we have,” he said. “Through reach-out to us, as well as our reaching out to athletes to find out their positions, the great majority of the athletes were supportive and wanted to see a return back to the region and felt it was time to go back. … There’s certainly some that didn’t agree but the great majority did.”
WHEN WILL THE NEXT WOMEN’S TENNIS TOURNAMENT BE PLAYED IN CHINA?
A schedule is expected to be released in the coming weeks. Play should begin in China in September, after the Grand Slam season ends with the U.S. Open in New York, and will include the WTA Finals in Shenzhen. ___
Howard Fendrich has been the AP’s tennis writer since 2002. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/HowardFendrich ___
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