Peng Shuai: WTA makes ‘unprecedented statement’ on China

Decision to suspend tournaments in China is ‘brave’ and ‘bold’ – but it could prove costly 

Peng Shuai has won two grand slam women’s doubles titles
Peng Shuai has won two grand slam women’s doubles titles
(Image credit: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has announced the “immediate suspension” of all its tournaments in China in support of Peng Shuai, the tennis star who disappeared from public view for three weeks after making sexual assault allegations against a retired senior Chinese minister.

In a video call last month with International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach, the 35-year-old explained that she was “safe and well, living at her home in Beijing, but would like to have her privacy respected at this time”.

However, in a lengthy statement issued last night, WTA chairman and CEO Steve Simon said he had “serious doubts that she is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation”. The governing body recognised that Peng Shuai’s message “had to be listened to and taken seriously” and the players of the WTA, “not to mention” women around the world, “deserve nothing less”.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

The WTA has repeatedly called for a full investigation into Peng’s claims, the BBC reported.

Simon explained that he doesn’t see “how I can ask our athletes to compete there” when Peng Shuai is not allowed to “communicate freely and has seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault”. He added: “Given the current state of affairs, I am also greatly concerned about the risks that all of our players and staff could face if we were to hold events in China in 2022.”

A ‘bold’ and ‘brave’ move

The WTA’s decision, which also includes suspending tournaments in Hong Kong, has been hailed by major figures in the tennis world. Billie Jean King, founder of the WTA and a 12-time grand slam singles champion, applauded the association for taking a “strong stand” on defending human rights in China and around the world. “The WTA is on the right side of history in supporting our players,” she said on Twitter. “This is another reason why women’s tennis is the leader in women’s sports.”

Current men’s world No.1 Novak Djokovic called the decision “very bold and very courageous” and fully supports the WTA’s stance “because we don’t have enough information about Peng Shuai and her well-being”.

Martina Navratilova, the 18-time grand slam champion, applauded the “brave stance” by Simon and the WTA for putting “principle above $” and for standing up for “women everywhere”. She also called out the IOC. “So far I can barely hear you!!!”, she tweeted.

‘Bigger than the business’

In its decision to pull events out of China, the WTA has made an “unprecedented statement” in support of Peng Shuai and women’s rights, said Henry Bushnell on Yahoo! Sports. This is in part “because it could cost the association and its players hundreds of millions of dollars”.

Lucrative tournaments in China are the source of “tens of millions of dollars annually” for the WTA, Yahoo reported. And just three years ago, it announced a “landmark deal” to bring its banner event – the WTA Finals – to Shenzhen. In 2019, tournaments in China accounted for more than $30m in prize money. There have been no WTA events in China for the past two years because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Simon told BBC Sport that while there is concern about the financial implications of not playing in China, Peng’s case is “bigger than the business”. “It is just something that we cannot let happen and we cannot walk away from that,” he said. “Our position is about what is best for the WTA and women’s athletes.”

The Week Unwrapped podcast: #MeToo in China

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.

Mike Starling is the digital features editor at The Week, where he writes content and edits the Arts & Life and Sport website sections and the Food & Drink and Travel newsletters. He started his career in 2001 in Gloucestershire as a sports reporter and sub-editor and has held various roles as a writer and editor at news, travel and B2B publications. He has spoken at a number of sports business conferences and also worked as a consultant creating sports travel content for tourism boards. International experience includes spells living and working in Dubai, UAE; Brisbane, Australia; and Beirut, Lebanon.