Former British No 1 slams WTA’s return to China as ‘abject hypocrisy’ amid Peng Shuai concern

Peng Shuai
Peng Shuai

The Women’s Tennis Association have confirmed that they are planning to return to China to host events, despite ongoing concerns over the health of former player Peng Shuai.

Former Wimbledon doubles champion Shuai caused a storm in November 2021 when she wrote a detailed post on social media making allegations about a relationship with high-ranking Chinese official Zhang Gaoli.

The post was swiftly removed and Peng disappeared from public view, sparking concern across the tennis world about her welfare.

China had become by some distance the WTA’s most lucrative market, with more tournaments there than in any other country, including the WTA Finals in Shenzhen.

Tournaments were suspended in the country because of the coronavirus pandemic but the WTA responded strongly to the situation, with chief executive Steve Simon saying the tour would not return to China unless there was an investigation into Peng’s complaints and independent proof of her welfare.

He admitted on Thursday neither of those stipulations has been met but the WTA has suffered without China’s investment and will now return to the country in the autumn.

Simon told BBC Sport: “We’ve been in this for 16 months and we are convinced that at this point our requests will not be met. To continue with the same strategy doesn’t make sense and a different approach is needed.

“Hopefully, by returning, more progress can be made.”

Last month the WTA entered into a “strategic partnership” with private equity firm CVC Capital Partners worth £125million with the aim of increasing commercial growth.

Simon insisted they have not parked concerns about Peng, saying: “We’ve achieved some assurances from people that are close to Peng that she’s safe and living with her family in Beijing.

“We are hoping by the return more progress will be made. We are very proud of the position we took. We’re not going to let Peng be forgotten at this point in time.”

Now that decision has been slammed by former British No 1 Andrew Castle, who commented on the issue during his LBC radio show.

“The WTA Tour are going back into China and that is just abject hypocrisy,” he stated.

“They said they would not go back until their had been an independent investigation, but now they have gone back and taken their money.

He went on to add: “I still feel reticent to consume Chinese products on too many occasions. I just don’t like it.”

France’s Alize Cornet was the driving force behind drawing attention to Peng’s plight but she declined to comment on the return to China ahead of the Billie Jean King Cup tie against Great Britain in Coventry.

Simon claimed most players are behind the move, saying: “We certainly have some that were not, but the majority – the great majority – were in support and are in support of going back. There was strong support across the members, the (player) council and the board.”

Human rights organisation Amnesty International raised concerns about the decision, with China researcher Kai Ong saying: “To date, there’s no independently-verifiable evidence that can prove Peng Shuai is truly safe and free.

“We’re reminding the WTA of the structural hurdles many survivors of sexual violence in China face when seeking justice and remedy.

“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.”