World No 1 Ash Barty has added her voice to those concerned for the welfare of Peng Shuai, who is suspected to be under the control of Chinese authorities after accusing former vice premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault.
We are all thinking of Peng Shuai and hoping she is okay. Peng Shuai is part of the tennis family, she has been on the tour for a long time, and is someone we all know and respect. The most important thing right now is that she is safe. Ash Barty
Peng, a two-time doubles Grand Slam champion and former doubles World No 1, is thought to have been coerced into retracting her allegations and of making restricted public appearances.
On 2 November, Peng took to Weibo, the Chinese social media platform, to accuse former vice premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault in a lengthy post, which was removed by authorities within 20 minutes.
Zhang has not responded to the claims, and a spokesperson for Beijing’s foreign ministry denied all knowledge of the allegations when asked about the subject shortly after Peng published her post, saying: “I have not heard of it, and it is not a diplomatic question.”
Despite two video calls with IOC President Thomas Bach assuring of her safety, Peng’s whereabouts remains a concern to many, and the WTA has suspended its tournaments in China in an attempt to make the ruling communist party guarantee her freedom and safety.
Barty now has shared her own worries about Peng’s well-being while also sharing an update on her off-season via Tennis Australia.
“We are all thinking of Peng Shuai and hoping she is okay,” the Aussie said. ”Peng Shuai is part of the tennis family, she has been on the tour for a long time, and is someone we all know and respect.
“The most important thing right now is that she is safe.”
With a Wimbledon trophy gleaming alongside her tour-leading five titles, there was much to celebrate in Barty’s transformational 2021 season, and the highs kept coming in the World No 1’s return home to Australia, with the Aussie recently announced as Tennis Queensland’s Athlete of the Year.
“It was an honour to win the Ashley Cooper Medal,” said a delighted Barty. “I’m a proud Queensland athlete, so being recognised in my home state is always special.”
The latest milestone added to Barty’s unmistakable joy in a well-deserved break with family and friends, before the hard work of preparing for a new year on tour began.
“It’s definitely been nice to have some time at home after such a long year,” said the 25-year-old, who announced her engagement to long-time partner Garry Kissick last month.
“I did feel rested until pre-season started a few weeks ago!
“I am proud I was able to finish the year at No 1, especially after the challenging and unpredictable season,” she added, having experienced her longest-ever stint on tour.
“Being away from home for so long was really tough for not only me but my whole team, everyone made sacrifices which I’m very grateful for.
“We went into 2021 knowing it was going to be an adventure and it definitely was, I wouldn’t change it.”
Meanwhile, ITF President David Haggerty has told the BBC that the governing body has no plans to suspend its events in China despite the widespread concerns for Peng.
The ITF had been facing calls to join the WTA in suspending all business in China over the government’s refusal to provide assurances of Peng’s well-being.
“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,” Haggerty told the BBC, adding that the organisation would continue to ‘work behind to scenes’ to help resolve the matter.
“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.”
The ITF oversees both the Billie Jean King Cup and the Davis Cup along with a number of lower-level tournaments.
The WTA’s decision to pull its tournaments has earned the support of current and former players, including King herself, the founder of the WTA, but has enraged Beijing, with foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin saying China ‘opposes the politicisation of sports’.
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.
“Our primary concern remains Peng Shuai’s well-being.
“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 allegations against Zhang, a member of the seven-member Politburo standing committee and one of the most senior Chinese officials in the country until 2018, prompted extraordinary levels of censorship in China.
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, but so far other associations, including the men’s ATP Tour, have not followed suit.