The president of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) questioned the validity of an email that Chinese state media said was written by missing Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai.
Peng, former doubles champion at Wimbledon and Roland Garros and one of the biggest stars in Chinese sports, has not heard from him since accusing former Chinese vice-premier Zhang Gaoli of assault sexual intercourse on November 2, sparking outrage and concern in the global tennis community.
Chinese state media CGTN tweeted on Wednesday what it claims was an email Peng sent to WTA chief Steve Simon, in which the 35-year-old denies her allegations and claims she is not “not missing” or “dangerous”.
“The statement released today by Chinese state media regarding Peng Shuai only raises my concerns for his safety and fate,” Simon said in a written statement.
“I find it hard to believe that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is attributed to him.”
As of Thursday morning, no other Chinese media reported the letter outside of CGTN, the English-speaking branch of the state-owned CCTV broadcaster.
“The WTA and the rest of the world need independent and verifiable evidence that [Peng] is safe, ”Simon continued, claiming that he had“ tried several times to reach her via many forms of communication, to no avail.
“Peng Shuai must be allowed to speak freely, without coercion or intimidation from any source. His allegation of sexual assault must be respected, investigated transparently and without censorship.
“Women’s voices must be heard and respected, not censored or dictated.”
After having a consensual temporary affair 10 years ago, Peng claimed in a post on Chinese social media network Weibo that Zhang, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, attempted to coerce her into having sex against her will. in his apartment in 2018.
“I can’t describe how disgusted I was and how many times I wondered if I was still human,” she wrote. “I feel like a walking corpse.”
The post was deleted shortly thereafter, and Peng’s Weibo searches ceased to yield relevant results. The discussion was censored and the fate of the tennis player remains unknown.
When asked Thursday morning where Peng was and whether the issue would damage China’s image ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said declared:
“My answer is very simple. It is not a foreign affairs matter, and I am not aware of the situation you mentioned.”
Djokovic adds voice to growing concern
Expressions of concern, outrage and support have come from the tennis world.
French professional player Alize Cornet called on Twitter users to defend the Chinese player under the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai, saying: “We must not be silent”.
Former tennis superstars Chris Evert and Billie Jean King also expressed concern over Peng’s fate, before men’s world number one Novak Djokovic spoke out after his win over Casper Rudd in the ATP final on Monday. .
“I heard about it a week ago,” the Serbian star wrote. “Honestly, it’s shocking that she’s missing, especially since she’s someone I’ve seen on the tour a number of times over the past few years. more to say than to hope that she will be found, that she is fine. It’s terrible… I can imagine how her family feels that she is missing. “
WTA: “Investigate allegations without censorship”
The WTA had already sounded the alarm bells.
“The recent events in China involving WTA player Peng Shuai are very worrying,” said Chief Simon, adding that the Chinese player had shown “remarkable courage.”
“We expect this issue to be addressed properly, which means that the allegations must be investigated thoroughly, fairly, transparently and without censorship. Our top and unwavering priority is the health and safety of our people. players. We speak out for justice. “
Former series champion Martina Navratilova rated Simon’s Twitter statement as “a very strong WTA position – and the correct position”.
In recent years, the WTA has grown considerably in the Chinese market. In 2019, nine WTA tournaments were held across the country, culminating with the WTA Finals in Shenzhen. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 season finale has been canceled and moved to Guadalajara in Mexico this year. However, the WTA has announced that the prestigious tournament will again be held in Shenzhen from 2022 to 2030.
“Not under any physical threat”
According to WTA boss Simon, no one in the tennis scene has been able to contact Peng since the message was posted on Weibo. However, the Chinese Tennis Association (CTA) assured him that Peng was safe and “not under any physical threat,” Simon told the New York Times newspaper.
Peng Shuai has so far been considered the model tennis player of China, whose achievements Beijing leaders loved to bask. In 2013, she and her doubles partner Hsieh Su-wei of Taiwan won the Grand Slam tournament at Wimbledon, and in 2014 the French Open in Paris.
For 20 weeks, Peng led the world doubles rankings.