The Peng Shuai situation in China continues to impact the WTA Tour in more ways than one, with the authorities refusing to provide the assurances requested by WTA chief Steve Simon, and women’s tennis taking a financial hit after suspending all its Chinese events in 2022.
We have received confirmation that Peng is safe and comfortable, but we have not yet met with her personally. The WTA continues to work towards a resolution and are hopeful we will be in a position to operate events in the region in 2023 and beyond, but we will not compromise our founding principles in order to do so. Steve Simon, WTA Chairman and CEO
In 2021 November, Peng accused accused a former Chinese Vice Premier of sexual assault, which resulted in the former World No 1 in doubles and Grand Slam title holder disappearing from public view for some weeks before retracting her remarks under what appeared to many as duress.
It prompted the WTA to immediately suspend all its events in China for 2022 in protest as Peng has not been seen since the stage-managed outings at the Winter Olympics in February.
In an interview conducted with L’Equipe at the time, Peng claimed she was fine, had never made any sexual assault allegations, never disappeared, and that she had decided to end her career.
“We do need to resolve Peng,” Simon told The Associated Press recently. “We’re comfortable that she’s safe, and we know she’s in Beijing, which is great. We want that, but we haven’t received the assurances that we want with respect to the investigation that we requested.
“What’s the real story? That’s all we’ve asked for. What’s the story? She obviously had great courage to come forward with what she said.
“The principles that are involved are right in line with what we stand for as an organisation. And what we’ve asked for is an investigation to understand what occurred, what didn’t occur, and then address it appropriately.”
The issue remains unresolved, and the underlying cause that troubles Simon and players alike, is when the tour’s events, including the WTA Finals, will return to China, and whether everyone will be safe there.
Shenzhen, China, was supposed to host the WTA Finals through until 2030, but the pandemic prevented those plans in 2020 and 2021, and Simon does not know what will happen in 2023, promising a decision ‘no later than the end of the first quarter of next year’.
“We hope that that’s where we’re going to be,” he said, “But, obviously, we have some issues to resolve.”
Elsewhere, ITF President David Haggerty believes the decision of the WTA not to host events in the country is their choice, and he sees no issue for the ITF as he is assured that Peng is not in danger after being in regular contact with the player.
While both the ITF and ATP don’t have suspensions in place, they have not held events in China because of the covid-19 situation.
Haggerty believes it is important that tournaments are held in China, where the ITF estimates that there are 200 million people who play tennis.
“I felt good with my conversation with Peng and that’s why I continue to stay in touch,” Haggerty told Sky News. “It’d be nice to see her face to face, and I’m looking forward to that, when I’m able to travel to China for the events, and when she’s able to travel outside of China, as well.
“So from my perspective, I think that tennis should be played, especially by juniors [in China]. We want our sport to be able to develop and grow, and China is a very, very important market.”
The assignment of the WTA Finals to Fort Worth, Texas, was only announced in September, and the scheduling placed it right ahead of the Billie Jean King Cup Finals in Glasgow, Scotland, the following week, which drew much criticism.
Simon called it ‘a very last-minute destination’ and referred to the Dickies Arena in Fort Worth as ‘probably a little big for us, but a beautiful arena’.
The lack of fan support there, though, drew remarks from World No 1 Iga Swiatek, who said ‘Hopefully we’re going to see a full house soon’ after her first match was played in front of a very sparse audience.
She also feels that the Finals needs stay in one place for several years to build crowds, and lamented the drop in prize money following the cancellation of the Shenzen editions.
“Everyone’s looking for stability,” acknowledged Simon, who agrees that events are more successful when they stay put, which is why the WTA’s agreement with Shenzhen was a decade long, he added.
Meanwhile, at the congress of the Chinese Communist Party, where more power was conferred on President Xi Jinping, Zhang Gaoli, whom Peng had accused of sexual abuse, made his first public appearance since the allegations were made a year ago.
The 79-year old walked onstage at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing behind President Xi and other retired and current leaders, and sat in the front row of the podium for the opening of the twice-a-decade meeting.
Zhang has made no public comment on the accusation, and his appearance is seen as recognition of his continued standing in the party, which scrapped the rule of having at least one woman in its politburo – its sole female member is due to retire next year, and she may not be replaced.
Women’s tennis may well not return any time soon to China, where at least 10 main tour events were held prior to the pandemic, and the WTA had opened an office.
Simon told Sportsmail that there are certain red lines that his organisation will not cross: “We have received confirmation that Peng is safe and comfortable, but we have not yet met with her personally.
“The WTA continues to work towards a resolution and are hopeful we will be in a position to operate events in the region in 2023 and beyond, but we will not compromise our founding principles in order to do so.”
An indication of how much the suspension of events in China is costing the game is evident in the prize money levels for this year’s WTA Finals.
When last held in Shenzhen, in 2019, Ash Barty took the honours and bagged a record-breaking $4.7 million after winning all her group matches but, in Texas, an equivalent performance would only have netted $1.68 million.
The WTA has taken a major financial hit for its principles, but there have been some positive developments too, such as the signing of a title sponsorship deal with med-tech firm Hologic.
It is understood, though, that the proposed investment into the WTA by private equity firm CVC, which looked on the cards in August, has yet to materialise, although this is still expected to be signed, with the company buying a 20% stake in the WTA Tour, and some of the money ear-marked to prop up prize funds.
The breakthrough of Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur has underscored the tour’s global offering, while Swiatek has emerged as a worthy World No 1, with a likeable personality, but she has yet to become a global superstar beyond the game.
Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez, who so refreshingly entertained at last year’s US Open as teenagers, have yet to fulfil their potential on court but have joined the ranks of another superstar, Naomi Osaka, who played only 23 matches this year and still maintains her global public appeal.
Other set-backs included the sudden retirement of another big star in Barty, which was a huge blow to the tour, while the more expected departure of rarely-seen Serena Williams deprived her huge fanbase of a massive drawcard.
And then there is the scandal surrounding 2019 Wimbledon champion Simona Halep, who failed a drugs test taken at the US Open and has yet to prove her innocence.
Simon said in Fort Worth that he had spoken with Halep, the two-time Grand Slam champion and former World No 1, who has been provisionally suspended after testing positive for the banned substance Roxadustat.
“I believe her, that she didn’t intentionally do something here,” Simon said. “That being said, I do believe very strongly in our anti-doping program, and I think it’s a good one, and our players support it, too.
“And if you ask Simona, she supports it. I’m very confident that as we go through the process, the truth is going to come out, and we will deal with it accordingly. But I have a lot of sympathy for Simona, because I would never question her integrity.”
There is also another controversial issue facing the WTA, which is the continued presence of Russian and Belarusian players on tour amid the murderous activities of their respective governments in Ukraine.
It remains a hugely contentious issue and, apart from Wimbledon, acting under heavy government pressure, the sport has maintained its lenient approach towards its numerous Russian and Belarusian players.
While the ban from team events remains in place, they have been allowed to play on as ‘flag-less’ individuals, and many have continued to enjoy success, which has caused deep resentment among Ukrainian players, whose numbers are more substantial on the female side.
It is to their bitter frustration that their counterparts from the aggressor nations have remained steadfastly neutral, fearful of causing trouble for themselves or their relatives back home.
With no sign of Putin abandoning his terrible war, the status quo becomes ever more questionable, and is one of many uncertainties facing the game at the end of another difficult year.
The WTA’s China quandary is contributing to the circuit’s inability to close the prize gap with men’s tennis.
While Grand Slam events award equal prize money to men and women, some other tournaments do not, and the WTA total continues to lag behind the separately operated men’s ATP Tour in 2022, which awarded about $242 million in prize money, 35% more than the WTA.
If the WTA Tour doesn’t return to Shenzhen, women’s players could lose out on tens of millions of dollars during what would have been the life of the contract, while another cause of the prize-money gap involves media-rights agreements.
“If you look at an ATP versus a WTA set of rights for a similar number of events, similar quality of events, we will probably get 30 to 40 percent of the value that [the ATP is] realising for the same set of rights,” Simon said. “So if you’re buying rights, you’re looking at past history of value of rights, and what has been paid for that right. And of course, that’s what you’re fighting against right now.”
Swiatek ended the year with $9,875,525 in prize money, which, depending on the results of the ongoing ATP Finals, could put her ahead of the top man on the ATP Tour, but it has taken her some hustling to achieve, with the 21-year-old from Poland winning both the French and US Open titles, plus 6 other singles titles in the process to amass.
“While we’re still not equal to the ATP in prize money, there still is an awful lot of prize money out there available for the athletes to achieve it,” Simon added. “So, it’s a mixed message that’s out there for sure, but I think the number one message is [that] it’s a reflection about the year that Iga had.
“And I think it says well for the sport, it says well for her.”
Meanwhile, the WTA really needs to resolve its Peng Shuai and Ukrainian issues quickly.