Tennis Stars Plead for Chinese Player’s Safety Following Sexual Assault Accusation

Prominent tennis players like Naomi Osaka have voiced support for Peng Shuai, who has not been heard from since she accused a former Communist Party leader of sexual assault.

Tennis governing bodies and star players are speaking up for Chinese player Peng Shuai, after she made shocking allegations of sexual assault by a former Communist Party leader, triggering concerns about her personal safety. 

In a Nov. 2 post sent from her verified account on the microblogging site Weibo, Peng, 35, accused China’s former vice premier Zhang Gaoli, 75, of coercing her into having sex about three years ago. The post was swiftly deleted and references to her allegations, including subtle ones, have been wiped out in a blanket censorship campaign. 

Peng, a former Wimbledon and French Open doubles champion, has not made public comments since then. This week, tennis organizations and prominent players are joining a call in support, at risk of being boycotted in a country where sports groups and athletes are expected to toe the Communist Party line. 

Naomi Osaka on Wednesday tweeted with the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai in a statement condemning the censorship and pleading for Peng’s safety.

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“Censorship is never ok at any cost,” Osaka wrote. “I hope Peng Shuai and her family are safe and ok. I’m in shock of the current situation and I’m sending love and light her way.”

An error occurred while retrieving the Tweet. It might have been deleted.

Former world No. 1 Chris Evert and French player Alize Cornet have also posted on Twitter in support of the Chinese player. 

An error occurred while retrieving the Tweet. It might have been deleted.
An error occurred while retrieving the Tweet. It might have been deleted.

“Peng Shuai, and all women, deserve to be heard, not censored. Her accusation about the conduct of a former Chinese leader involving a sexual assault must be treated with the utmost seriousness,” Steve Simon, Women’s Tennis Association chairman and chief executive said in a statement on Monday. 

“In all societies, the behavior she alleges that took place needs to be investigated, not condoned or ignored. We commend Peng Shuai for her remarkable courage and strength in coming forward.”

ATP, the governing body of men’s tennis, later backed WTA’s stance in calling for a full investigation into Peng allegations. 

Former world No. 1 Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova also shared the WTA statement. “Women’s tennis in China will probably be over for a while,” Navratilova said in a reply to another Twitter user. “If you don’t think this is a strong response, you don’t understand how things work.” 

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Personal lives of senior Chinese officials are considered highly sensitive by the leadership. Peng’s allegations marked the first time a senior member of the ruling Communist Party was accused of sexual misconduct since the start of a budding #MeToo movement in the country.

The Chinese government has not responded to the allegations. On Monday, a foreign ministry spokesperson said he was not aware of the controversy. 

It’s unclear how Chinese tennis, a key market for world tours, will be impacted. The sport has gained large followings in China, in part thanks to star players like Peng. Following Peng’s allegations, Weibo suspended a tennis fan forum and banned users from commenting on some tennis-related posts, but users can still discuss the ongoing WTA and ATP finals. 

In 2019, broadcasts of NBA were stopped in China after then-Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey expressed support for the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Last month, Boston Celtics highlights were removed from China's Tencent streaming platform after Enes Kanter criticized the Communist leadership. 

Stacey Allaster, former chief executive of WTA, told Reuters on Monday that the tennis world had put Peng’s health and safety ahead of business.

Many star players have encountered Peng in world tournaments. She has played Serena Williams, for example, in 2009 and 2014. 

When asked about Peng on Monday, the current men’s world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, said he was shocked that she might be “missing.” “More so that it’s someone that I’ve seen on the tour in previous years quite a few times,” he said, according to AFP. “There’s not much more to say than to hope that she’s ok and it’s just terrible.”

Tagged:

Sports, Tennis, #metoo, worldnews

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