The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has called for a “full, fair, and transparent investigation” into allegations of sexual assault made by player Peng Shuai against a former Chinese vice premier.
In a statement on Monday, the WTA also called for an end of censorship against the former top-ranked doubles player.
Peng is one of China’s biggest sporting stars and had alleged on her Weibo social media account on November 2 that Zhang Gaoli coerced her into sex, and they later had an on-off consensual relationship.
Peng said that she could provide no evidence to back her allegations.
The post was deleted about half an hour after it was published.
China’s internet is heavily censored and the private lives of top leaders are an especially sensitive subject. Zhang, now 75, was a vice premier between 2013 and 2018 and served on the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top decision-making body, between 2012 and 2017.
Concerns among the global tennis community have grown as Peng has not been seen since the post.
The WTA said in a statement that it will seek a “full, fair and transparent investigation into sexual assault allegations” against the former Chinese leader.
“The recent events in China concerning a WTA player, Peng Shuai, are of deep concern,” said WTA Tour Chairman and CEO Steve Simon in a statement.
“Peng Shuai, and all women, deserve to be heard, not censored. Her accusation about the conduct of a former Chinese leader involving a sexual assault must be treated with the utmost seriousness.”
Peng was the world number one doubles player in 2014, the first Chinese player to achieve a top ranking after winning the doubles titles at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014.
China, the focus of the Tour’s most aggressive expansion over the last 10 years, hosted nine tournaments in the 2019 season, including the elite WTA Finals, with a total of $30.4m prize money on offer.
The season-ending WTA Finals, contested by the world’s top eight singles players and eight doubles teams, had a prize purse of $14m in 2019 when it was played in Shenzhen for the first time. The Finals event was cancelled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and moved this year to Guadalajara, Mexico.
The WTA said that the tournament will return to Shenzhen from 2022 and the Chinese city will host every edition until 2030.
“I think everybody fully understands what’s at stake here on many different fronts as we’re going through it,” Simon told the New York Times on Sunday. “I think we’re certainly, from players to board to council, fully united that the only acceptable approach is that of doing what is right.”
Simon told the Times that no one at the WTA Tour has talked directly to Peng but has received assurances from the Chinese Tennis Association that she is safe.
“We’ve received confirmation from several sources, including the Chinese Tennis Association, that she is safe and not under any physical threat,” Simon told the Times.