- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
The governing body of women's tennis has issued China with a stunning ultimatum over the fate of missing Chinese star, Peng Shuai.
Peng has not been heard from since making allegations of sexual assault against a former vice-premier of China in a post on the social media platform Weibo two weeks ago.
'SAD TO HEAR': Tennis world reacts to devastating Roger Federer news
'NOT HUMAN': Fans in disbelief over Novak Djokovic moment
The post was quickly removed and there has been mounting worry for Peng, with Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic among those taking to social media to draw attention to the situation.
The head of the WTA expressed his concern about the situation after a letter - purportedly from the Chinese player - appeared on state media to confirm that she was safe and to deny the sexual assault allegations that had been made by her previously.
The letter on the China Global Television Network Europe's Twitter page, which the broadcaster claimed was sent from Peng to WTA chairman and CEO Steve Simon, read: "Regarding the recent news released on the official website of the WTA, the content has not been confirmed or verified by myself and it was released without my consent.
"The news in that release, including the allegation of sexual assault, is not true. I'm not missing, nor I am unsafe.
"I've just been resting at home and everything is fine. Thank you again for caring about me."
The WTA chief called for an investigation into Peng's allegations, but has since gone one step further and said China could be stripped of future tennis events - despite the huge sums of money at stake.
Simon says the WTA is prepared to come down hard on China if it is not provided with "verifiable proof" of Peng's safety and whereabouts.
“If at the end of the day we don’t see the appropriate results from this, we would be prepared to take that step and not operate our business in China, if that’s what it came to,” Simon told the New York Times.
“Should we find that what we are asking for cannot happen or will not happen, we are prepared to no longer do business within the region and move forward,” he told TIME during the WTA tour finals in Mexico.
Any such actions would be a massive blow to China, which is set to host 10 tournaments in 2022, including the season-ending WTA Finals in Shenzhen, that Australia's Ash Barty took out in 2019.
Simon admitted that he "had a hard time believing" that Peng actually wrote the statement that was released by Chinese state media.
WTA casts doubt on authenticity of Peng letter
"The statement released today by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts," Simon wrote on Wednesday.
"I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her.
"Peng Shuai displayed incredible courage in describing an allegation of sexual assault against a former top official in the Chinese government.
"The WTA and the rest of the world need independent and verifiable proof that she is safe.
"I have repeatedly tried to reach her via numerous forms of communications, to no avail. Peng Shuai must be allowed to speak freely, without coercion or intimidation from any source.
"Her allegation of sexual assault must be respected, investigated with full transparency and without censorship.
"The voices of women need to be heard and respected, not censored nor dictated to."
Peng alleged on the Twitter-like Weibo earlier this month that former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli had "forced" her into sex during a long-term on-off relationship.
Details of her reported accusations remain scrubbed from China's Internet.
The post appeared to have been deleted quickly after being published.
Chinese officials have remained quiet about Peng and its national tennis association has not responded to requests for comment.
Click here to sign up to our newsletter for all the latest and breaking stories from Australia and around the world.