Peng Shuai’s victory in the Wimbledon women’s doubles final of 2013 went down as something of a footnote at that year’s Championships. A home grown winner of the men’s singles for the first time in 77 years took care of that.
Now Andy Murray is among those highlighting the pleas for information on her welfare and whereabouts, following her allegation of sexual abuse against Zhang Gaoli, China’s former Vice-Premier.
Serena Williams is another adding her voice, but the issue is extending far beyond the Twitter feeds of some prominent players.
Tennis could banish China from hosting events over the Peng Shuai (above) mystery
The sporting world is concerned over the whereabouts of whistleblower Peng (above)
The United Nations also wants to know what has happened to her. A spokesperson for the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights on Friday amplified calls for an investigation, saying ‘It is important to prove her whereabouts and happiness.’
At Westminster there are calls for Foreign Secretary Liz Truss to seek assurances about her safety: ‘I would hope that Liz Truss and her colleagues are demanding a meeting with the Chinese Ambassador to ensure that China knows that the world is watching and waiting to see evidence that Peng is safe, free and well,’ Toby Perkins MP, Chair of the all-party Parliamentary Group for Tennis, told Sportsmail.
Shadow Minister for Asia and the Pacific, Stephen Kinnock, has formally tabled a question to that effect.
An extraordinary season in women’s tennis has now ended with a 35 year-old, who has not featured on the tour since February 2020, as by far its most talked-about player.
Peng has been missing since posting that ex-Chinese vice-premier Zhang Gaoli co-erced her into sex three years ago
Almost as remarkable is that it concludes with Steve Simon, the Chief Executive of the WTA Tour, being hailed globally for his courage and leadership.
Since taking over the job in 2015 Simon, who formerly ran the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, has studiously avoided saying almost anything of interest.
Content to be perceived as reassuring bank manager-type figure, he has been resolutely low-key in trying to navigate increasingly difficult commercial waters for the women’s game.
Steve Simon, the WTA chairman and CEO, said he will consider pulling tournaments out of China if the matter is not resolved soon
Last Sunday the WTA finally responded to the now well-documented allegations, expressing concern and calling for a transparent inquiry.
Since then his rhetoric has become increasingly strong, and yesterday he told CNN: ‘We have to start as a world making decisions that are based on right and wrong. We can’t compromise on that. We’re definitely willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it. Because this is certainly, this is bigger than the business. Women need to be respected and not censored.’
It is significant that, in late November, the WTA has still not published its calendar for 2022, which was due to come out this month, already delayed by Covid issues.
They could hardly do that, given just how significant China has become to the economy of the women’s game.
In 1991 – a time when the women’s tour was able to attract an umbrella sponsor (Kraft General Foods) unlike now – there were 25 main tour WTA events held in the United States and none in China.
Such has been the shift to Asia over recent decades that in the original calendar scheduled for 2020 there were eight in America. In China there would have been ten alone (aside from numerous at lower tiers), offering not just more than $30 million in prize money but a huge staging fee for the year-end championships in Shenzhen, not to mention media rights.
Peng alleged that senior politician Zhang Gaoli, 40 years her senior, sexually assaulted her in a bedroom at his house, while his wife was present
That tells of where the growth (and decline) has been in the professional game. Simon is prepared to jeopardise relations with the country that has been the biggest area of expansion, unless the Peng Shuai situation is resolved. The men’s ATP Tour, which has four events in China, could yet feel the backdraft.
The Grand Slam singles victories of Li Na at the 2011 French Open and 2014 Australian Open dovetailed perfectly with the growing economic might of China.
There are manifestations of this as close to home as Wimbledon. In 2019 Chinese mobile phone giant Oppo became the official smartphone of the Championships. In a major move away from tradition, they have even managed to secure a signage presence on the Centre Court. They also sponsor the French Open, among other sporting properties.
In the prevailing circumstances it is hard to see professional tennis returning to China as so much has been said, and that concerns some people in the game. One US-based senior figure in the sport, who did not wish to be identified, pointed out that the WTA Tour is an alliance representing both tournaments and players. Simon’s bullish approach could have significant negative real world consequences for both of those interests, said the source.
The International Olympic Committee (above) and International Tennis Federation have been quiet on the issue
The International Olympic Committee has been conspicuously restrained on the matter while global governing body the International Tennis Federation – whose Olympic staging fee makes up a significant part of its revenues – has been notably reticent.
The ITF has restricted itself to a statement, saying: ‘Player safety is always our top priority and we support a full and transparent investigation into this matter.’
Within the sport nobody genuinely seems to have an idea what has happened to Peng Shuai, and rumours abound. One of them, completely unsubstantiated, is that she may be hiding out somewhere in the US.
Tennis stars like Andy Murray have been sharing the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai
In a further twist on Friday, three pictures were posted by a state-affiliated social media account last night of the player, claiming they had been shared by a ‘friend’. Again, as with so much in this case, there was no corroboration that they were authentic.
Players have driven the response to her disappearance, and much credit should go to 31 year-old French player and former world number eleven Alize Cornet. She came up with the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai that has been picked up on worldwide.
She is prepared to suffer reduced income and playing opportunities if it comes down to it, telling French newspaper L’Equipe: ‘If we have to detach ourselves from China because it no longer sticks to our values, we have to do it even if we are losing economically. There are enormous sums at stake but we cannot remain silent.’
The Great Britain team are set to play next week’s Davis Cup finals behind closed doors after Austria announced a national lockdown.