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  • Sheryll Mericido

WTA ends boycott, resumes play in China after Peng Shuai incident

HONG KONG — The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) began play in its first event in China in more than three years on Monday, breaking its boycott due to tennis star Peng Shuai's uncertain future.

Peng, one of the most well-known sportspeople in China, was worried that she would be kept incommunicado by the government in 2021 after accusing retired Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of forcing her into sex during a long-term, on-and-off relationship.

Following the accusation, Peng vanished from the public eye for more than two weeks, which prompted the world's top tennis players and the UN to ask where she was and to call for a thorough inquiry into her claims against Zhang.

The grand slam doubles champion and three-time Olympian Peng later denied making the sexual assault allegation. However, given the Communist Party's well-known history of putting down dissent, some international observers and sports figures continued to express concern about Peng's safety and her capacity for free speech.

The WTA quickly declared it would stop all tournaments in China after the scandal broke out in late 2021, with Steve Simon, chairman and CEO, stating he had "serious doubts that (Peng) is free, safe, and not subject to censorship, coercion, and intimidation."

The WTA would not come back, according to Simon at the time, until there had been a "full and transparent investigation" without any form of censorship and until there had been enough information to satisfy worries about Peng's safety and whereabouts.

However, Simon declared in April that the suspension, which he called a "principled stand," would expire by September despite the absence of such an investigation.

Due to COVID-19 travel limitations, the WTA had already canceled its tournaments in China in 2020.

"The situation has shown no sign of changing after 16 months of suspended tennis competition in China and persistent efforts to fulfill our original requests," he remarked at the time. We have come to the conclusion that we will never fully achieve those aims, and ultimately, our players and tournaments will bear the great cost of their efforts.

The WTA, he continued, has spoken to Peng's friends and family and is "assured she is living safely with her family in Beijing. "Peng "cannot be forgotten through this process," he declared in the statement.

A second event is slated for later in September in the Chinese city of Ningbo, and then the China Open will take place in Beijing from September 30 to October 8 after the Guangzhou Open, which began on Monday and runs through Saturday in southern China.

Peng made her final public appearance in February 2022 when she spoke with Olympic officials at the Beijing Winter Games and subsequently gave an interview to the independent French sports news website L'Equipe.

Human rights organizations and players have condemned the WTA's decision to restart play. Human Rights Watch, a global organization, called the action a "huge disappointment" and urged everyone to "keep Peng Shuai's case in the public eye."

Alize Cornet, a French player who was among the first to support Peng by using the well-known hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai, will also not be traveling to China to compete, according to Reuters, citing the French daily Le Parisien. However, Cornet did not specifically mention Peng.

According to the publication, Cornet announced in an Instagram story that her season will only continue later in October.

Cornet was quoted as stating, "Staying true to my convictions and careful about my health, I decided I would not be playing in China this year," according to Reuters.

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