WTA willing to pull out of China

This article was last updated on April 16, 2022

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Steve Simon, the chairman and chief executive of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), has said that the elite tour is willing to pull out of China if the disappearance of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai remains unresolved.

Shuai, 35, has not been seen in public since accusing former vice premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault on Chinese social media platform Weibo on 2nd November. Shuai’s Weibo post was rapidly deleted and her profile, which had more than half a million followers, has been blocked from the site.

Earlier this week, the Chinese Tennis Association (CTA) told the WTA that Peng was safe. An email, apparently sent on Shuai’s behalf, was sent to the WTA and published by Chinese state media. The note claimed that Shuai was unharmed, as well as retracting her allegations against Gaoli.

In response Simon issued a statement saying the email only further raised his concerns and that he has a ‘hard time believing’ that Shuai actually wrote the correspondence. He also called for ‘independent and verifiable proof’ of the player’s safety after failing to contact her personally.

Later, speaking to CNN, Simon said the WTA would not be afraid to pull its operations out of China over the issue.

“We’re definitely willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it,” Simon told CNN. “Because this is certainly, this is bigger than the business.”

Simon also referred to the email as a “staged statement of some type”. He added: “Whether she was coerced into writing it, someone wrote it for her, we don’t know.

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“But at this point I don’t think there’s any validity in it and we won’t be comfortable until we have a chance to speak with her.”

Women’s tennis has been growing in popularity within the Chinese market in recent years, with Grand Slam winner Li Na one of several players from the country to achieve global success. In 2019, the WTA Finals were relocated from Singapore to Shenzhen as part of ten year deal. Simon told the New York Times in 2018 that the agreement, which reportedly includes the construction of a new tennis arena, was worth more than US$1 billion when the real estate elements were factored in.

Simon said just last month that WTA is “looking forward to returning to China next year” after a second consecutive season of events were cancelled in the country due to the pandemic.

In 2019 there were eight events in China, including the WTA Elite Trophy, the WTA Premier Five Wuhan Open, the WTA Premier Mandatory Beijing Open and the WTA Finals – the latter of which offered players a record prize purse of UK£14 million (US$18.8 million).

However, the WTA has held no events in China since the pandemic took hold in 2020, with the WTA Finals cancelled last year for the first time in the tour’s history. This year the WTA Finals were moved to Guadalajara in Mexico.

Numerous tennis stars, including Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams, have taken to Twitter to express their concerns regarding Shuai, a former world number one doubles player.

Osaka tweeted: ‘I was recently informed of a fellow tennis player that has gone missing shortly after revealing that she had been sexually abused. Censorship is never ok at any cost, I hope Peng and her family are safe and ok.’

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