The International Tennis Federation has reportedly said it will not cancel any tournaments in China over concerns for Peng Shuai, because it does not want to “punish 1.4 billion people”.
The ITF – the world governing body for the sport – had been facing calls to join the Women’s Tennis Association in suspending all tournaments in China over the government’s refusal to provide assurances of Shuai’s wellbeing.
Peng, a former doubles world No 1, was not seen for several weeks after she posted an essay to social media accusing the former vice-premier of China, Zhang Gaoli, of sexually assaulting her. After Chinese authorities failed to initiate an investigation or provide assurances of her wellbeing which satisfied the WTA and its chief executive Steve Simon, the organisation announced it was suspending all tournaments in China.
On Sunday the ITF’s president, David Haggerty, told BBC Sport the allegations needed to be looked into and they would continue to work on that resolution, but they would not be following the WTA.
“You have to remember that the ITF is the governing body of the sport worldwide, and one of the things that we are responsible for is grassroots development,” he said. “We don’t want to punish a billion people, so we will continue to run our junior events in the country and our senior events that are there for the time being.”
Haggerty’s comments added to a short statement released last week by the ITF after a board meeting.
“The International Tennis Federation, as the governing body of tennis, stands in support of all women’s rights,” it said. “Our primary concern remains Peng Shuai’s wellbeing. The allegations Peng made must be addressed. We will continue to support all efforts being made to that end, both publicly and behind the scenes.”
Peng’s allegation prompted extraordinary levels of censorship in China. As a member of the seven-member Politburo standing committee until 2018, Zhang was one of the most senior Chinese officials in the country, and the most significant Chinese figure to be named in China’s struggling #MeToo movement. Her post disappeared from Weibo in about half an hour, and all discussion was censored online. The WTA and others said they were unable to reach her for several weeks.
Following sustained international attention including a campaign by sporting bodies and celebrities, China’s state media produced photos and videos of Peng in public which it said proved her wellbeing. However Simon said the purported evidence only made him more worried as there was no sign she was not under any form of control and was able to speak freely.
Video meetings between Peng and the president of the International Olympic Committee also failed to reassure those advocating for her.
The WTA’s stance on Peng’s case has been widely praised, amid a global reckoning in sport on how to balance human rights, players’ freedom of speech, and the need for the lucrative Chinese market. However, so far other associations, including the men’s Association of Tennis Professionals, have not made or threatened similar action.
The ITF and ATP have been contacted for further comment.