The Australian Open will allow fans to display support for Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai so long as any action is peaceful, Tennis Australia boss Craig Tiley has announced.
Tennis Australia drew widespread criticism after footage of fans wearing shirts with the slogan 'Where is Peng Shuai?' being asked to removed them by Australian Open security and later Victoria Police was widely published over the weekend.
Peng, the former world doubles No.1, accused a former high-ranking Chinese government official of sexual assault in November.
Since then, the 36-year-old has not been seen outside of a handful of public appearances, while her allegation has been completely censored from Chinese internet users.
Tiley announced the Australian Open would allow the show of support on Tuesday, however the backflip in policy was labelled 'pathetic' by former women's star and supporter of Peng, Martina Navratilova.
— Matt Walsh (@MattWalshMedia) January 23, 2022
Tennis Australia, which organises the Australian Open, reiterated its long-standing policy on Monday of "not allowing banners, signs or clothing that are commercial or political".
In the face of mounting criticism however, Tiley said security would assess supporters on a case by case basis to ensure the tournament was not disrupted.
"Yes, as long as they are not coming as a mob to be disruptive but are peaceful," he told AFP on the sidelines of the Grand Slam.
"It's all been a bit lost in translation from some people who are not here and don't really know the full view.
"The situation in the last couple of days is that some people came with a banner on two large poles and we can't allow that.
"If you are coming to watch the tennis that's fine, but we can't allow anyone to cause a disruption at the end of the day."
Tennis Australia backflip on Peng Shuai protest rules
A GoFundMe page set up to raise money to print more T-shirts reached its Aus$10,000 (US$7,100) goal within two days, with activists pledging to make them available to whoever wants to wear them.
Relaxation of the policy came as local media cited human rights experts as saying Tennis Australia's stance could be unlawful.
"There does not appear to be any proper basis for asking an attendee to remove a T-shirt that highlights a human rights issue," barrister Michael Stanton told The Age newspaper.
The Women's Tennis Association has been widely praised for its stance on Peng, demanding to hear from her directly and suspending tournaments in China.
Leading players at the Australian Open have on several occasions said they still hope to hear from Peng so they can be assured of her safety.
Tiley reiterated that "our main concern is the welfare of Peng Shuai and we have worked closely with the WTA".
"We encourage her to have direct conversations. The most appropriate people to do that with is the WTA."
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