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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

WTA tournaments will return to China after boycott over Peng Shuai allegations

WTA tournaments will return to China after boycott over Peng Shuai allegations

The Women's Tennis Association will resume tournaments in China this year having accepted an investigation into the sexual assault allegations made by former player Peng Shuai will not be carried out by the Chinese government.
Former doubles world number one Peng said in November 2021 she was "forced" into a sexual relationship with former China vice-premier Zhang Gaoli.

The WTA suspended its end-of-year events in China and said it would not return until there was an investigation and it had proof of Peng's safety.

After making the accusation in a social media post, Peng briefly disappeared from the public eye and she then later denied making the allegation. Zhang has not commented publicly on the allegation.

The WTA had called for the Chinese authorities to hold a "full, fair and transparent" investigation before any tournaments could go ahead.

"We've been in this for 16 months and we are convinced that at this point our requests will not be met," WTA chief executive Steve Simon told BBC Sport.

"To continue with the same strategy doesn't make sense and a different approach is needed. Hopefully, by returning, more progress can be made."

The decision means the final two months of the WTA season will once again be dominated by China. Simon said the schedule will be "very similar" to the pre-pandemic year of 2019 when eight Chinese tournaments were staged in eight weeks from early September.

And crucially, the season-ending WTA Finals will resume its 10-year deal with the city of Shenzhen. Prize money this year, as it was in the first year of the contract in 2019, will be £11.2m.

Simon says the "great majority" of players are in support of a return to China.

And despite promising a hard-line stance with the Chinese government, in which there would be no room for compromise, he says he has not considered resigning.

"No, I would never do that to an organisation. It's about leading an organisation and listening to its members," he said.

"We have athletes that come from over 80 nations, so there's plenty of different opinions, but the majority of athletes were very supportive of a return back to the region. We certainly have some that were not, but the majority - the great majority - were in support and are in support of going back. There was strong support across the members, the [player] council and the board."

Simon says this change of heart was not forced upon them by commercial realities, but accepts members would have "sacrificed a great deal" had the WTA Tour withdrawn from China for good.

The WTA's boycott lasted just over 16 months, although no tournaments could have taken place in the country during that period anyway because of the Covid pandemic.

"We've achieved some assurances from people that are close to Peng that she's safe and living with her family in Beijing," Simon said when asked whether the WTA had achieved anything. He says he has not yet been able to speak personally with Peng.

"We do also have some assurances that there won't be any issues with our players and staff while they are competing in China. And hopefully we have received some respect for the stance we took," he continued.

"We haven't seen anyone else take a stance such as we did. There hasn't been any other sporting leagues or any business that have - we took that strong stance, we stand behind it."

The men's Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Tour committed itself to 2023 events in Chengdu, Zhuhai, Shanghai and Beijing once China's Covid regulations eased, and the International Tennis Federation (ITF) said this month it is looking forward to bringing the World Tennis Tour back to China.

"We didn't go into this with expectations that anybody would [follow suit]," Simon added.

"I would have liked to have seen that, for sure, but we didn't expect it and we're not pointing fingers at anyone else."

Simon denies that by returning to China, the WTA has removed a crucial pillar of support for Peng.

"We are hoping by the return more progress will be made," he said. "We are very proud of the position we took.

"We're not going to let Peng be forgotten at this point in time."

The move was described as "very important" by French world number five Caroline Garcia, who said she understood the decision to return to China.

"The ATP and the ITF was already going back, and women's tennis is following," she told BBC Sport.

"In the past we have had some huge tournaments over there and I think it is an important swing for us in our calendar and I'm looking forward to it."

Former British number one Anne Keothavong, who captains the nation's Billie Jean King Cup team, and current British player Katie Boulter both stressed Peng's safety was their main concern.

But they added the future health of the WTA Tour - and the staging of more tournaments - had to be considered.

"From a tennis perspective, hopefully it will be a welcome return," said Keothavong.

"I don't know whether they have been able to investigate in the way that they would have liked, but tennis is a business. The WTA need to generate commercial revenue and the players need a circuit to compete."

Boulter added: "I think ultimately there's two things. One is that we hope Peng Shuai is OK and secondly it's just an excitement to have tournaments on the calendar.

"Sometimes I think we don't have enough tournaments and I really hope that we can get out there and enjoy it."
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