The Women’s Tennis Association announced the immediate suspension of all tournaments in China yesterday, amid fears over the safety of tennis player Peng Shuai.
Shuai, a former world number one doubles player, made sexual assault allegations against China’s former Vice Premier, Zhang Gaoli, at the start of November.
The 35-year-old claimed she was coerced into having sex with Zhang, which began an on-off consensual relationship with the former Politburo Standing Committee member.
Peng’s post was deleted around 30 minutes after it was published, and she subsequently disappeared from public view for three weeks.
This sparked serious concern among the tennis community, with WTA chairman and chief executive Steve Simon demanding it be verifiably proved that Peng was safe and free.
The tennis star said she was “safe and well” during a video call with Thomas Bach, the International Olympic Committee President, but the WTA said this was “insufficient evidence”.
Simon has now confirmed the WTA will withdraw from all tournaments in China, including Hong Kong.
“If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug, then the basis on which the WTA was founded – equality for women – would suffer an immense setback,” Simon said in a lengthy statement.
“I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players.
“As a result, and with the full support of the WTA Board of Directors, I am announcing the immediate suspension of all WTA tournaments in China, including Hong Kong.
“In good conscience, I don’t see how I can ask our athletes to compete there when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault.
“Given the current state of affairs, I am also greatly concerned about the risks that all of our players and staff could face if we were to hold events in China in 2022.”
What does the WTA withdrawal from China mean for women’s tennis?
A large number of WTA tournaments are hosted in China, with the governing body relying heavily on investment into its tour from the country.
Although no events have been held in China for the past two years as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, nine WTA tournaments were held in the country in 2019.
A lucrative long-term deal to move the season-ending WTA Finals to Shenzhen was also signed in 2019. This 10-year partnership doubled the prize pot at the tournament to $14 million (£10.5 million).
According to figures provided by the WTA, the total prize money on offer for the nine tournaments in China totalled $30.4 million (£22.8 million).
The governing body also has a deal with streaming platform iQiyi as its digital rights partner in China, reportedly worth $120 million (£90.2 million).
As a result, the WTA is expected to take a significant financial blow by withdrawing its tournaments from China. This will mean less prize money, and potentially less resources, for female tennis players.
Simon told BBC Sport he was concerned about the financial implications of his decision, but that it was “bigger than the business”.
“This is something that we simply cannot walk away from,” he said.
“If we walk away from what we have requested, what we are telling the world is [that] not addressing sexual assault with the respect and seriousness that it requires is OK, and it is just not.
“It is just something that we cannot let happen and we cannot walk away from that.”