WTA strips China of all tournaments after receiving 'insufficient evidence' of Peng Shuai's safety

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  • Shuai Peng
    Shuai Peng
    Chinese female tennis player (1986-)
  • Thomas Bach
    Thomas Bach
    German fencer and sports official, president of the IOC
WTA strips China of all tournaments after receiving 'insufficient evidence' of Peng Shuai's safety - GETTY IMAGES
WTA strips China of all tournaments after receiving 'insufficient evidence' of Peng Shuai's safety - GETTY IMAGES

The Women’s Tennis Association on Wednesday night suspended all tournaments in China after being shown “insufficient evidence” Peng Shuai was safe.

Amid a major diplomatic row over the disappearance of the former Wimbledon doubles champion, Steve Simon, the WTA’s chief executive, said he was “greatly concerned” about the risk players could face if it held events in the nation next year.

Peng vanished from the public eye for almost three weeks after posting a 1,600-word statement on Chinese social media platform Weibo in which she claimed China’s former vice-premier, Zhang Gaoli, had ‘forced’ her to have sexual relations with him.

An email released by Chinese state media purporting to be from Peng and a much-publicised video call between her and Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, did little more than compound fears she was not safe.

And Simon, who had previously threatened to strip China of WTA events unless a full and transparent investigation was carried out into her claims, ran out of patience on Wednesday night.

“The leadership in China has not addressed this very serious issue in any credible way,” he said.

“If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug, then the basis on which the WTA was founded – equality for women – would suffer an immense setback.

“I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players.”

There have been no WTA events in China for two years because of the coronavirus pandemic but eight were held there in 2019, including the season-ending WTA Finals.

Stripping one of the world’s largest economies from hosting events could cost the organisation millions.

“I very much regret it has come to this point but China’s leaders have left the WTA with no choice,” Simon added.

“Unless China takes the steps we have asked for, we cannot put our players and staff at risk by holding events in China.”

Concern for Peng’s wellbeing has seen a number of tennis players and athletes adopt the hashtag #WhereisPengShuai on Twitter to draw attention to it, including Andy Murray and Serena Williams.

The White House said it was “deeply concerned” about her welfare, while the European Union called for China to release “verifiable proof” she was safe.

Both the ATP and International Tennis Federation previously backed the WTA’s calls for a full and transparent investigation into her allegations.

Wednesday night’s announcement piled pressure on the two organisations to follow the latter’s lead and strip China of their own tournaments.

The same applied to the IOC and the Winter Olympics ahead of next year’s Games in Beijing, a working group for which Zhang had been head of prior to his retirement.

He and Bach were photographed shaking hands in 2016.

Simon said: “I hope leaders around the world will continue to speak out so justice can be done for Peng, and all women, no matter the financial ramifications.”

Shelby Rogers, the world number 42, hailed the WTA’s decision on Wednesday night, posting on Twitter:

China last week branded fears over the safety of Peng “maliciously hyped up”, accusing its critics of trying to politicise the saga.

The country’s foreign ministry cited Peng’s calls with Bach as proof she was alive and well, saying it was “not a diplomatic matter”.

“I think some people should stop deliberately and maliciously hyping up, let alone politicise this issue,” spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters.

Zhao spoke out after Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused the IOC of being a puppet of the state following Bach’s 30-minute video call with three-time Olympian Peng, in which no mention was made of her allegations against Zhang.

“The IOC has vaulted itself from silence about Beijing’s abysmal human-rights record to active collaboration with Chinese authorities in undermining freedom of speech and disregarding alleged sexual assault,” said Yaqiu Wang, HRW’s senior China researcher.

“The IOC appears to prize its relationship with a major human-rights violator over the rights and safety of Olympic athletes.”

Lord Coe argued any form of Beijing Winter Olympics boycott over the case of Peng would be “a meaningless gesture”, while controversially suggesting the Nazi-run 1936 Berlin Games was proof that sport could be a “powerful driver of integration and change”.

Stripping China of tournaments could cost WTA hundreds of millions

Stripping China of all tournaments over the Peng Shuai saga could cost the Women’s Tennis Association and its players hundreds of millions of pounds.

The richest women’s sport gets a major slice of its revenue from the country, with Steve Simon, the WTA’s chief executive, last month describing claims that it was as much as a third as merely an “overstatement”.

The association is estimated to have turned over almost $110 million (£83m) in the year before the coronavirus pandemic, many millions of which would have come from eight tournaments held in China, including the season-ending WTA Finals.

The WTA signed a 10-year deal for Shenzhen to stage those finals back in 2018 and stripping it of the event – and doing the same to the host venues for the other seven tournaments – for an indefinite period could spark a costly legal battle over multi-year contracts worth well over $100m.

Even if it did not, the financial consequences of the WTA’s decision could be stark.

Shenzhen’s successful bid to become the home of the finals included a promise to more than double its annual prize money from $7m to $14m.

Indeed, in its first staging there in 2019, Ash Barty took home $4.4m, the biggest first prize in the history of women’s tennis.

The total prize money across the eight tournaments held in the country that year was $30m. The China Open, a Beijing tournament, offered $8.3 million, making it the fourth-most lucrative event on the tour.

Covid-19 has given the WTA a taste for life without China and its cash, with the prize pot for this year’s finals in Guadalajara – switched there due to the pandemic – less than that Barty alone won in Shenzhen.

Relocating all tournaments scheduled to be played in China to other countries should help the WTA limit any loss of revenue, particularly when it comes to the majority of its broadcast contracts.

One that could come under threat is a reported 10-year, $120 million deal with Chinese digital streaming platform iQiyi.

With its revenues also reliant on sponsorship and ticket sales, which can vary wildly depending on the location of a tournament, the cost of its decision looks certain to run into many millions of pounds.

It also raises questions for the future of the seven Chinese women ranked in the world’s top 200.

Will China allow them to play on the WTA Tour if the boycott stands?

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