WTA tournaments will return to China this year after the Tour ended its boycott over concerns about the safety of the Chinese player Peng Shuai.
The decision represents a significant U-turn in the Women’s Tennis Association’s policy since its president and chief executive, Steve Simon, took the decision to suspend tournaments in China in December 2021 after a high-profile row with Beijing over the player’s wellbeing.
Peng had accused Zhang Gaoli, the former Chinese vice-premier, of sexual assault in a lengthy post on the Chinese social media platform Weibo. The post was deleted within 30 minutes.
Peng was not seen or publicly heard from for three weeks after the Weibo post and the tennis governing bodies were unable to reach her, prompting international concern over her wellbeing. At the Winter Olympics last year Peng spoke with L’Equipe under controlled conditions, describing the post as “an enormous misunderstanding” and she said she was retiring from tennis.
Although the WTA said it has been assured that Peng is safe, it has not been allowed direct contact and has expressed serious concerns over her ability to act and speak freely. Simon has repeatedly asserted, as recently as March, that the WTA would return to China only when it was able to directly contact Peng and if the Chinese authorities conducted a “full, fair and transparent” investigation of her initial claims.
On Thursday Simon announced he would no longer be seeking those terms. “We’ve been in this for 16 months and we are convinced that at this point our requests will not be met,” he 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 was criticised by human rights organisations. Kai Ong, Amnesty International’s China researcher, asserted that Peng’s freedom and safety have yet to be independently verified. “Returning to China without continuing to push for an independent investigation into Peng’s accusations risks perpetuating the systemic injustice faced by sexual violence survivors in the country.”
Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said: “The WTA deserves credit for its initial stance, which was an act of courage, but the decision to move ahead with the tournament will be a huge disappointment for the Chinese human rights community. It is not surprising, though, given the money at stake and the record of other international businesses in China.”
The world No 5, Caroline Garcia of France, described the WTA’s decision as important. “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,” Garcia told the BBC. Anne Keothavong, Britain’s Billie Jean King Cup captain, stressed Peng’s safety was paramount and added: “From a tennis perspective, hopefully it will be a welcome return. 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.”
The WTA had previously been praised for being the only international sports organisation to take a stand on human rights issues in China. The International Olympics Committee, the NBA and Fifa have all been criticised for failing to speak out on the country’s human rights record.
Some observers have noted that the WTA’s boycott of China also coincided with the country’s strict zero-Covid policy, which made sports tournaments unviable anyway. This year the ATP and ITF both confirmed that they would resume tournaments in China after a three-year absence due to Covid.
Peng is a former world No 1 in doubles, reached a career high of No 14 in singles and is one of the reasons for the growing popularity of women’s tennis in China. For the past decade China has constituted a large portion of the WTA’s revenue and the organisation has suffered enormous financial losses since Chinese tournaments were initially cancelled due to Covid-19 in 2020.
The WTA’s China swing will resume in September with eight tournaments scheduled in Beijing, Wuhan and other cities, including the WTA’s flagship year-end WTA Finals in Shenzhen.
In a statement the WTA said: “Peng cannot be forgotten through this process … The WTA will continue to advocate for Peng and the advancement of women around the world.”