- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
The Chinese government has responded with anger to the WTA's decision to suspend all tournaments in the country amid their ongoing concerns over the safety of Peng Shuai.
The international tennis world has been calling on the Chinese government for further proof of Peng's safety, after she vanished for several weeks soon after making allegations of sexual assault against a senior government official.
With the exception of a widely criticised video call with an official from the International Olympic Committee, Peng has been largely absent from public life.
Peng, a three-time Olympian, did appear in mid-November at a dinner with friends and a children's tennis tournament in Beijing, photographs and videos published by Chinese state media and by the tournament's organisers showed.
The WTA remained unconvinced of her safety however, making the bold move to suspend their operations in China.
Foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin did not directly mention the WTA on Thursday but pointedly said that China "opposes the politicisation of sports".
In an editorial, the Global Times newspaper, published by the ruling Communist Party's People's Daily, said the WTA was betraying the Olympic spirit and bringing politics into tennis.
"Some forces in the West are instigating a boycott against the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics," it added, referring to the February event which some rights groups want boycotted over China's human rights record.
Peng, a former world No. 1 doubles player, was unseen in public for nearly three weeks after she posted a message on social media in early November accusing China's former Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli of forcing her into sex.
The IOC says it held another video call with #PengShuai yesterday and offered her wide-ranging support, “will stay in regular touch with her, and have already agreed on a personal meeting in January.”
“There are different ways to achieve her well-being and safety.” https://t.co/LhUsFUZhhG
— magdalena osumi 💁🏼♀️ (@jt_mag_os) December 3, 2021
Neither Zhang, who retired in 2018, nor the government have commented on Peng's accusation and the topic has been blocked on China's heavily-censored internet.
"While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe, and not subject to censorship, coercion, and intimidation," WTA chief executive Steve Simon said, suggesting she was pressured to retract her allegation.
Equality for women would suffer a setback if powerful people could suppress accusations of assault, he added. "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."
From former women's greats Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova to men's No. 1 Novak Djokovic, many in the tennis world have applauded the WTA, which stands to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in TV and sponsorship revenue.
Support for WTA's China sanction over Peng Shuai
Simon said the move to put a halt to the tour's play in China, including Hong Kong, came with the backing of the WTA Board of Directors, players, tournaments and sponsors.
"Really strong stance. Far bigger things in the world than a game of tennis," Australian world No.72 John Millman tweeted.
It is the strongest public stand against China taken by a sports body - and one that could cost the WTA hundreds of millions of dollars.
Grand slam doubles champion Peng dropped out of public view after raising allegations of sexual assault against former China vice premier Zhang Gaoli in a November 2 social media posting that was quickly taken down by Chinese authorities.
In the month since, Simon has made repeated calls for China to carry out an inquiry into the 35-year-old Peng's accusations and to allow the WTA to communicate directly with the former No.1-ranked doubles player and owner of titles at Wimbledon and the French Open.
Simon said the suspension, announced on Wednesday via a statement issued by the tour, means that tournaments could still end up being staged in China if its government follows through with his requests.
"We haven't cancelled, as of yet, but we're prepared to get to that point," Simon said on the video call. "And that'll be a point of discussion at some point: Where do you get to cancellation?
"Is it 2022 only? Is it for the future?
"I mean, those are all questions that will come down the road."
Beijing is set to host the Winter Games beginning on February 4, and International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said on November 21 that he spoke with Peng - a three-time Olympian - on a 30-minute video call, and that she appeared to be "doing fine".
Click here to sign up to our newsletter for all the latest and breaking stories from Australia and around the world.