'Massive respect': Tennis world erupts over WTA's China bombshell

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WTA boss Steve Simon, pictured here with Elina Svitolina and Ash Barty at the WTA Finals in China in 2019.
WTA boss Steve Simon (L) with Elina Svitolina and Ash Barty at the WTA Finals in China in 2019. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

WTA boss Steve Simon has won widespread praise in the tennis world for his bombshell decision to suspend all events in China.

Simon announced the staggering decision on Wednesday, following through with a threat to withdraw the WTA from China over the country's handling of the Peng Shuai scandal.

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Peng disappeared from public view last month after claiming former vice premier Zhang Gaoli coerced her into sex before they had a consensual relationship.

Peng's social media post on November 2 was quickly taken down by Chinese authorities and she only recently reappeared in public for the first time after disappearing for three weeks.

Simon has previously called on China to prove that Peng is not being censored and her allegations are being taken seriously.

"Unfortunately, the leadership in China has not addressed this very serious issue in any credible way," WTA chairman and CEO Simon wrote in a statement on Wednesday.

"While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe, and not subject to censorship, coercion, and intimidation."

Simon has made repeated calls for a "full and transparent investigation - without censorship" of Peng's accusations. 

He said the move to put a halt to his tour's play in China, including Hong Kong, came with the full support of the WTA Board of Directors.

"In good conscience, I don't see how I can ask our athletes to compete there when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault," Simon said.

"Given the current state of affairs, 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."

China typically hosts about 10 women's tennis tournaments each year, including the prestigious season-ending WTA Finals, which are scheduled to be held there for a decade.

The WTA Finals reportedly brings in about $1.4 million in revenue for Chinese authorities.

The nation is a source of billions of dollars in income for various sports entities based elsewhere, including the WTA, the NBA and the International Olympic Committee.

Peng Shuai, pictured here with Su-Wei Hsieh after winning the Wimbledon doubles title in 2013.
Peng Shuai (R) with Su-Wei Hsieh after winning the Wimbledon doubles title in 2013. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Tennis world applauds Steve Simon's move against China

Simon's bombshell move has been applauded around the world.

"I applaud Steve Simon and the WTA leadership for taking a strong stand on defending human rights in China and around the world," International Tennis Hall of Fame member and women's tennis pioneer Billie Jean King said.

"The WTA has chosen to be on the right side of history in defending the rights of our players. This is yet another reason why women's tennis is the leader in women's sports."

Fellow female pioneer Martina Navratilova wrote: "This is a brave stance by Steve Simon and the WTA where we put principle above $ and stand up for women everywhere and particularly for Peng Shuai."

Aussie star John Millman added: "Really strong stance. Far bigger things in the world than a game of tennis."

Beijing is set to host the Winter Olympics in February, and IOC president Thomas Bach said last month that he spoke with Peng - a three-time Olympian - on a 30-minute video call.

The IOC did not release video or a transcript of the exchange and said only that Bach reported that she said she was well.

The IOC said in a statement that Peng appeared to be "doing fine" and said she had requested privacy. 

The IOC did not explain how the call was arranged, although it has worked closely with the Chinese Olympic Committee and government officials to organise the upcoming Games.

Critics have suggested that Peng would not have called the IOC if she was truly free to speak.

with AAP

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