The head of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has said the organization is willing to end its cooperation with China if it does not receive assurances over the safety of ‘missing’ player Peng Shuai.
International concern has been building regarding Peng’s whereabouts after she appeared to make sexual assault allegations against former top Chinese official Zhang Gaoli in a social media post earlier this month.
The message from Peng’s Weibo account has since been deleted and the player, 35, has not been seen publicly since.
Chinese media shared an email purportedly sent by Peng to the WTA this week, assuring them that she was well.
The message denied that Peng was missing and said the assault allegations against Zhang – a former vice premier – were “untrue”.
However, WTA chairman and CEO Steve Simon responded by saying he had “a hard time believing” that the message had actually come from Peng.
In interviews on Thursday, Simon issued a fresh warning by asserting that the WTA would be willing to pull out of lucrative deals with China, should it not be given satisfactory answers regarding Peng’s well-being.
“We’re definitely willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it,” Simon told CNN.
“Because this is certainly, this is bigger than the business. Women need to be respected and not censored.”
Simon said the WTA had been in touch with the Chinese tennis authorities, who had assured them that Peng was unharmed and in Beijing.
But Simon said the WTA wanted to make direct contact with Peng – which thus far it has been unable to do.
“We have reached out to her on every phone number and email address and other forms of contact,” said the WTA boss.
“There’s so many digital approaches to contact people these days that we have, and to date we still have not been able to get a response…
“At this point I don’t think there’s any validity in [the email] and we won’t be comfortable until we have a chance to speak with her.”
Meanwhile, women’s icon Serena Williams added her weight to the campaign to support Peng.
“I am devastated and shocked to hear about the news of my peer, Peng Shuai,” Williams wrote in a tweet,” adding the ‘Where is Peng Shuai’ hashtag.
“I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible. This must be investigated and we must not stay silent. Sending love to her and her family during this incredibly difficult time.”
I am devastated and shocked to hear about the news of my peer, Peng Shuai. I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible. This must be investigated and we must not stay silent. Sending love to her and her family during this incredibly difficult time. #whereispengshuai pic.twitter.com/GZG3zLTSC6
— Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) November 18, 2021
The WTA’s position thus far contrasts with that of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which declined to comment on the case as Beijing gears up to host the Winter Olympics in February.
An IOC spokesperson said “experience shows that quiet diplomacy offers the best opportunity to find a solution for questions of such nature.”
Peng is one of her country’s biggest-ever tennis stars. She is a former world doubles number one who has two doubles Grand Slam titles to her name.
In the singles, she rose to a career-high position of world number 14 in 2011, and reached the US Open semi-finals in 2014.