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WTA suspends tennis tournaments in China over Peng Shuai

Peng Shuai

WUHAN, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 23: Shuai Peng of China severs during the match against Garbine Muguruza of Spain on Day 2 of 2019 Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open at Optics Valley International Tennis Center on September 23, 2019 in Wuhan, China. (Photo by Wang He/Getty Images)

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The head of the women’s professional tennis tour announced Wednesday that all WTA tournaments would be suspended in China because of concerns about the safety of Peng Shuai, a Grand Slam doubles champion who accused a former high-ranking government official in that country of sexual assault.

China was supposed to be the site of several tennis tournaments next year, including the season-ending WTA Finals.

A Nov. 2 post on Peng’s verified Weibo account said that former vice premier Zhang Gaoli forced her to have sex with him three years ago in his home despite repeated refusals. The post was quickly taken down.

“Unfortunately, the leadership in China has not addressed this very serious issue in any credible way,” WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon wrote in a statement. “While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe, and not subject to censorship, coercion, and intimidation.”

Simon repeated his call for a “full and transparent investigation — without censorship” into Peng’s accusations.

“In good conscience, I don’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,” Simon said. “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.”

Tennis stars including Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Andy Murray expressed concern for Peng’s well-being and whereabouts two weeks ago, posting social media messages with the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai.

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

After the WTA announcement, the International Olympic Committee said it held a video call with Peng on Wednesday, its second one with her in the last two weeks. The IOC said the second call reconfirmed that Peng is safe and well.

The IOC repeated that it is using “quiet diplomacy” in Peng’s situation, saying, “given the circumstances and based on the experience of governments and other organizations, is indicated to be the most promising way to proceed effectively in such humanitarian matters.”

“We share the same concern as many other people and organizations about the well-being and safety of Peng Shuai,” the IOC said in a press release. “This is why, just yesterday, an IOC team held another video call with her. We have offered her wide-ranging support, will stay in regular touch with her, and have already agreed on a personal meeting in January.”

On Nov. 21, IOC President Thomas Bach said he spoke with Peng on a video call that day, and the IOC said in a statement that Shuai said she is safe and well, requested privacy and that she accepted a dinner invitation from Bach for after he arrives in China in January.

The Beijing Winter Olympics open Feb. 4.

IOC Athletes’ Commission chair Emma Terho and Chinese IOC member Li Lingwei, who the IOC said has known the three-time Olympian Peng for many years, were also on the Nov. 21 call.

The IOC did not release video or a transcript of either call.

Peng, 35, competed at the Olympics in 2008, 2012 and 2016. She was world No. 1 in doubles, winning titles at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014. She last played on the WTA Tour in February 2020.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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