• SHARE

On a video call and exercise bike as she prepared for tennis practice Friday, American player Christina McHale shared memories of matches with her talented former doubles partner, Peng Shuai.

“I hope she’s safe,” McHale said.

The tennis community has continued to rally around Peng, a Chinese tennis star who has been unreachable since making public her allegations of sexual assault against a former high-ranking Chinese official.

Wimbledon champions Petra Kvitova and Simona Halep joined the chorus Friday, posting messages of support and concern. So did Andrea Sestini Hlavackova, a retired Czech star with whom Peng reached the Australian Open final in 2017.

“We played many tennis battles together and spent half a year together on tour,” Hlavackova said in an Instagram post. “Now my wishes are for her to be OK and sending her strength if she is not.”

It is a message and a campaign that has quickly expanded beyond the confines of the sport. Only a few days ago, Peng was a prominent figure in her home country but hardly a household name beyond.

But the intrigue surrounding the lack of direct contact with Peng has made waves and headlines around the world in the wake of her explosive if unsubstantiated allegations against Zhang Gaoli, a former Chinese vice premier. On Friday, the United Nations and the U.S. government were also asking for answers. “We join in the calls for PRC authorities to provide independent and verifiable proof of her whereabouts and that she is safe,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.

Psaki said that she did not have details about the case but that women around the world should be able to speak out about sexual assault and seek accountability. “We will continue to stand up for the freedom of speech, and we know the PRC has zero tolerance for criticism and a record of silencing those that speak out, and we continue to condemn those practices,” she added.

As support and concern for Peng continue to build, it is unclear what her situation means for tennis. But it is clear what it could signify: an abrupt and major change in the game’s business model and growth strategy.

Tennis officials have been focused on the Chinese market for decades. One of the many reasons they pushed successfully for the sport to return to the Olympics — it became a full medal sport again in 1988 — was to help build tennis in China, where Olympic sports were given priority by the government.

The men’s tennis tour was the first to bring one of the sport’s biggest events to the country, awarding its year-end championships, then known as the Tennis Masters Cup, to Shanghai in 2002 and bringing it back from 2005 to 2008.

But it is the women’s tour that has made the biggest commitment to the country, increasing its stake significantly in the years after Li Na became China’s first Grand Slam singles champion at the 2011 French Open and then followed up by winning the 2014 Australian Open. The tour eventually approved the move of a tournament from Tokyo to Li’s home city of Wuhan and, most significantly, awarded its year-end championships, the WTA Finals, to Shenzhen in 2019 in exchange for doubling the event’s prize money to $14 million and committing to a new arena.

Steve Simon, an American who is the chair and CEO of the WTA Tour, shepherded that decision even if some in the higher echelons of the sport viewed it as a money grab rather than an attempt to find the ideal spot for big crowds and big buzz.

But Simon argued that Shenzhen and the rapidly growing Pearl River Delta region was a potential hotbed for the sport and that the size of the 10-year agreement gave the WTA stability and flexibility.

“It’s a huge opportunity for us,” Simon told The New York Times in January 2018. “It’s going to allow us to do some things as a tour and invest with a long-term vision and planning, and we haven’t had that opportunity before.”

Nearly four years later, so much has changed. The coronavirus pandemic shut down the sport for five months in 2020, and China has canceled every tournament scheduled in the country since the tours resumed. At the same time, political tensions have continued to rise between China and the parts of the world where tennis has long been strongest: the United States, Europe and Australia.

Even without Peng, this was going to be a challenging landscape for tennis to navigate, but the Peng situation appears to have underscored the cultural divide and potentially accelerated the exit strategy.

There has never been a case like this in China: a prominent athlete making such significant allegations against one of the country’s major political figures. Although Simon received an email from Peng this week, Simon has cast doubt on its authenticity and insisted that the tour wants verifiable proof that Peng is safe. He has said that no one in the tennis community has been able to contact her directly.

Simon has called for a full investigation into Peng’s allegations of sexual assault, an inquiry free of censorship. That could prove even trickier to achieve in a country unlikely to embrace outside demands on how it conducts its internal affairs.

The International Olympic Committee, with even more at stake as it prepares to take the Winter Olympics to Beijing in February, has argued for tact and behind-the-scenes diplomacy rather than direct confrontation. But Simon and the WTA have decided, after careful and lengthy consideration, to make a stand and have doubled down — insisting that if Chinese authorities do not comply, the tour would be prepared to pull out of China, where it had 11 events on the schedule this year.

The men’s tour, which has four events of its own in China, has offered plenty of support for Peng but, as of yet, no such ultimatum. Simon, with even more at risk commercially, has taken a much bolder path than his ATP counterpart, Andrea Gaudenzi, believing that raising the temperature and raising global awareness of Peng’s situation was necessary.

“When you’re talking about allegations such as this and sexual assault, when a woman has the courage to come up and reflect these and state it, you have to have the courage to then follow up and go through the right process and get to the right solution at the end of the day,” Simon said Sunday. “You cannot water down or compromise this type of an issue.”

The No. 1 men’s player, Novak Djokovic, said Friday that he supported the WTA’s approach.

Peng has had to be strong before, overcoming numerous injuries, adversity and isolation. She had a procedure to repair a heart defect not long before leaving home at age 14, when she was sent by Chinese officials to train at the Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, Florida.

“She didn’t speak any English, and she was with us for two years,” Chris Evert said Friday. “She was painfully shy, and most of our coaching was with sign language. I remember we were always trying to make her laugh. She was intense on the court. It was hard for her to fit in with the language barrier, and I sensed a real loneliness.”

But her talent was clear. With exquisite timing, big baseline power and double-fisted groundstrokes, often sharply angled, that were reminiscent of Monica Seles, Peng was viewed as a potential champion in China even before Li broke through.

Peng was also part of a group of Chinese women’s players who were successful in persuading the Chinese Tennis Federation to allow them more freedom of choice in their own careers and to be able to keep a much greater share of their own prize money.

Peng had not matched Li’s singles achievements, peaking at No. 14 in the rankings in 2011, but she did reach the No. 1 ranking in doubles in 2014 after winning Wimbledon the previous year with Taiwanese partner Hsieh Su-wei.

“She’s just so good,” said McHale, who won the Tianjin Open with Peng in 2016. “I loved playing with her. I didn’t have to do that much. She always seemed to know where to be on the court.”

But after a resurgence in 2016 and 2017, Peng’s career has dipped and in August 2018, she received a six-month ban from the tour, three months of it suspended, after an investigation by the Tennis Integrity Unit confirmed that she had offered a financial incentive to Alison Van Uytvanck to withdraw as her doubles partner after the sign-in deadline so she could play with a different partner at Wimbledon in 2017 (Peng ended up not playing the tournament at all).

She has not competed since early 2020 and appeared headed for a low-profile finish to her long career. How things have changed.

© 2021 The New York Times Company
Read more at nytimes.com

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.

SUBSCRIBE NOW

PHOTO GALLERY (CLICK TO ENLARGE)