The suspension of all WTA tournaments in China because of concerns about the safety of Peng Shuai, a Grand Slam doubles champion who accused a former government official there of sexual assault, could result in cancellations of those events beyond 2022, the head of the women's professional tennis tour told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
"We're hopeful we get to the right place, but we are prepared, if it continues as it is -- which hasn't been productive to date -- that we will not be operating in the region," WTA President and CEO Steve Simon said in a video call from California. "This is an organizational effort that is really addressing something that's about what's right and wrong."
He 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. It is the strongest public stand against China taken by a sports body -- and one that could cost the WTA millions of dollars.
Peng dropped out of public view after raising the allegations about former vice premier Zhang Gaoli in a Nov. 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.
"Our approach to this and our request to the authorities are consistent and they'll stay there. We definitely would like to have our own discussion with Peng and be comfortable that she's truly safe and free and has not been censored, intimidated or anything like that," Simon told The AP. "We still haven't been able to have that conversation to have the comfort that what we're seeing isn't being orchestrated, to date. The second element of that is that we want a full and transparent -- without any level of censorship -- investigation on the allegations that were made."
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 nation is a source of billions of dollars in income for various sports entities based elsewhere, including the WTA (headquartered in St. Petersburg, Florida), the NBA (run out of New York) and the International Olympic Committee (Lausanne, Switzerland).
Simon said the suspension, announced Wednesday via a statement from him issued by the tour, means that tournaments could still end up being staged in China if its government follows through with his requests. If not, the events could be moved to other countries, as happened this year, when the tour's Asian swing was called off because of COVID-19 concerns; the WTA Finals, for example, were shifted to Guadalajara, Mexico, last month.
"We haven't canceled, 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 Feb. 4, and IOC President Thomas Bach said on Nov. 21 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 organize the upcoming Games.
The European Union said Tuesday it wants China to offer "verifiable proof" that Peng is safe.
A number of Chinese businesspeople, activists and ordinary people have disappeared in recent years after criticizing ruling Communist Party figures or in crackdowns on corruption or pro-democracy and labour rights campaigns.
A statement attributed to Peng two weeks and tweeted out by the international arm of Chinese state broadcaster CCTV included a retraction of her accusations.
"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 in the release announcing the suspensions. "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."
There was little immediate reaction in China, where repeated calls to the Chinese Tennis Association and the Tennis Management Center of the government's General Administration of Sports rang unanswered on Thursday. On Chinese social media platforms, a few apparent references to the WTA's announcement from fans were all very oblique with no direct references to the WTA or Peng in order to avoid censorship.
The U.S. Tennis Association commended Simon and the WTA, tweeting a statement that read: "This type of leadership is courageous and what is needed to ensure the rights of all individuals are protected and all voices are heard."
International Tennis Federation spokeswoman Heather Bowler said the ITF Board would meet Thursday to discuss the matter.
"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."
Concerns about the censoring of Peng's post and her subsequent disappearance from public view turned #WhereIsPengShuai into a trending topic on social media and drew support from tennis stars such as Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Martina Navratilova.
But news of the first #MeToo case to reach the political realm in China has not been reported by the domestic media and online discussion of it has been highly censored.
"I can only imagine the range of emotions and feelings that Peng is likely going through right now. I hope she knows that none of this is her fault, and that we remain very proud of her extreme courage that she's shown through this," Simon told the AP. "But the one thing that we can't do is walk away from this, because if we're walking away from the key elements -- which is obviously not only her well-being, but the investigation -- then we're telling the world that not addressing sexual assault with respect to the seriousness it requires is OK, because it's too difficult. And it's simply something that we can't let happen."