Wearing 'Free Peng Shuai' T-shirts at Australian Open is fine - but do not disrupt event, say Tennis Australia

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Activist Drew Pavlou, Martina Navratilova and Craig Tiley - Wearing ‘Free Peng Shuai’ T-shirts at Australian Open is fine – but do not disrupt event, say Tennis Australia - TWITTER: @DREWPAVLOU / REUTERS / GETTY IMAGES
Activist Drew Pavlou, Martina Navratilova and Craig Tiley - Wearing ‘Free Peng Shuai’ T-shirts at Australian Open is fine – but do not disrupt event, say Tennis Australia - TWITTER: @DREWPAVLOU / REUTERS / GETTY IMAGES

Craig Tiley, the chief executive of Tennis Australia, has moved to defuse the row over free speech at the Australian Open, which began when security guards confiscated T-shirts reading “Where is Peng Shuai?”

Speaking on ESPN, the former great Martina Navratilova suggested that Tennis Australia were "capitulating" to China and placing sponsorship money ahead of human rights concerns.

But Tiley told Telegraph Sport that individual T-shirts were not the problem, adding that Tennis Australia were in the process of contacting one woman whose T-shirt had been confiscated to tell her that she could come back onsite.

The tournament’s position, he said, was that “If you’ve got a T-shirt that says, ‘Free Peng Shuai’, that’s fine. As long as you’re not a part of a group of individuals who are going to congregate and disrupt the event.

“There are clear terms and conditions on the tickets. It doesn’t matter what the political views are, what they’re promoting. If you come here with a desire to disrupt people’s comfort and safety, and you’re bringing banners on site, then our security people will make a judgement call.

“We have a commitment to protect playing customers. When someone wants to wear a T-shirt, they can sit inside. When that converts to being a group of people who are loud and disruptive, security will intervene.

“That’s where he [the security guard] was doing his job. In the case of that woman [who appeared on the smartphone video that began the row], she should be able to come in with that shirt. We are in the process of contacting her and saying she can come onsite.”

The Peng Shuai debate is the latest political complication to afflict the Australian Open after world No 1 Novak Djokovic saw his visa cancelled 10 days ago.

Peng's well-being became a matter of concern among the global tennis community in November when she appeared to allege that a former Chinese vice premier, Zhang Gaoli, had sexually assaulted her in the past. After that post, she was absent from public view for nearly three weeks.

Last month, she said she had never accused anyone of sexually assaulting her, and that a social media post she had made had been misunderstood. The WTA suspended tournaments in China due to concerns over Peng's safety.

French player Nicolas Mahut also slammed TA's response to the T-shirts, tweeting "What lack of courage! What if you did not have Chinese sponsors.” Baijiu distillery Luzhu Laojiao is a sponsor of the event.

On Monday, Peng supporters in Australia said they were planning to hand out 1,000 "Where is Peng Shuai?" T-shirts at Melbourne Park this week after raising more than A$10,000 on a GoFundMe page.

When asked about Navratilova’s comments, Tiley replied “I saw those comments, but I think what’s really important is our concern for Peng Shuai and her wellbeing. if we step back a little bit, we have been on a journey from the beginning. When Peng Shuai’s whereabouts were not known, we worked closely with the WTA and used our resources in China to locate her, and make sure she is well.

“We live in this region. We have offices and people from China who work for us, so we have to consider their safety too.

“We are not discouraging people to wear a T-shirt with views on Peng Shuai, and we are working closely with the WTA, There are conversations behind the scenes that are not public, not known. I think our position has been strong and we don’t look over our shoulder to see what impact that does or doesn’t have.”

With regard to the Djokovic fiasco, meanwhile, Tiley said once again that Tennis Australia had tried to “do the right thing”, which meant protecting the state of Victoria from unnecessary Covid infections.

“My biggest regret,” he said, “is that it caused a distraction from the players. There were 500 other players getting ready to play. Like with everything there will be lessons to be learned, but one thing that doesn’t change is our intent to do the right thing, I am someone who has been 260 days in lockdown so I understand the local feeling.”

Navratilova slams 'cowardly' Australian Open for banning Peng Shuai solidarity T-shirts

Martina Navratilova said Australian Open organisers had acted "cowardly" by preventing fans from wearing shirts bearing messages of support for Chinese doubles player Peng Shuai at the grand slam event.

Martina Navratilova brands 'cowardly' Australian Open for banning Peng Shuai solidarity T-shirts - Reuters
Martina Navratilova brands 'cowardly' Australian Open for banning Peng Shuai solidarity T-shirts - Reuters

After video emerged of security officials and police instructing fans on Saturday to remove shirts with the slogan, "Where is Peng Shuai?" on them, Tennis Australia (TA) defended its stance by saying the tournament does not allow political statements.

"Under our ticket conditions of entry we don't allow clothing, banners or signs that are commercial or political," TA said in a statement.

TA's position dismayed 18-times grand slam winner Navratilova, who said they were "capitulating" to China and placing sponsorship money ahead of human rights concerns.

"I find it really, really cowardly," she said on the US-based Tennis Channel. "I think they are wrong on this. This is not a political statement, this is a human rights statement.

"[Tennis Australia is] just really capitulating on this issue ... letting the Chinese really dictate what they do at their own Slam. I just find it really weak."

TA has not responded to requests for comment on the comments.

Peng's well-being became a matter of concern among the global tennis community in November when she appeared to allege that a former Chinese vice premier, Zhang Gaoli, had sexually assaulted her in the past. After that post, she was absent from public view for nearly three weeks.

Last month she said she had never accused anyone of sexually assaulting her, and that a social media post she had made had been misunderstood.

The WTA suspended tournaments in China due to what its concerns over Peng's safety.

French player Nicolas Mahut also slammed TA's response, tweeting: "What lack of courage! What if you did not have Chinese sponsors."

Baijiu distillery Luzhu Laojiao is a sponsor of the event.

On Monday, Peng supporters in Australia said they were planning to hand out 1,000 "Where is Peng Shuai?" T-shirts at Melbourne Park this week after raising more than $10,000 on a GoFundMe page.

"We can see how many match-goers that they can stop," activist Max Mok told Australian ABC Radio.

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