The head of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has cast doubt on an email released by Chinese state media attributed to tennis player Peng Shuai.
The tennis star has not been heard from since she made sexual assault allegations against a top Chinese government official two weeks ago.
In the email, Ms Peng purportedly says the allegations are “not true”.
Steve Simon, chairman of the WTA, said the message “only raises” his concerns about Ms Peng’s safety.
“I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her,” he said in a statement.
Written in her voice and published by the broadcaster CGTN, the email claims she is not missing or unsafe, adding: “I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine.”
Many responding on social media have cast doubt on its authenticity.
Ms Peng – a former number one-ranked tennis doubles player – had not been heard from since posting an allegation about former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli on Chinese social media site Weibo in early November.
She alleged she was “forced” into sexual relations with Mr Zhang – who served as the country’s Vice Premier between 2013 and 2018 and was a close ally of China’s leader Xi Jinping – in a post that was later taken down. She has not been seen or heard from publicly since.
The WTA and leading voices from the world of tennis have increasingly spoken out about Ms Peng since.
Earlier this week, world number one male tennis player Novak Djokovic said he hoped she was OK, adding that he was shocked, while Naomi Osaka voiced concerns about Ms Peng’s whereabouts.
Responding to the email published on Wednesday, WTA chair Steve Simon said the email he received “only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts”.
“The WTA and the rest of the world need independent and verifiable proof that she is safe,” he said.
He also reiterated that her sexual assault allegation must be investigated “with full transparency and without censorship”.
“The voices of women need to be heard and respected, not censored nor dictated to,” he added.
Ms Peng, 35, is a prominent figure in Chinese tennis. She has won two Grand Slams at Wimbledon in 2013 and the 2014 French Open, both alongside Taiwan’s Hsieh Su-wei.
Her allegation is the highest profile incident in China’s fledgling #MeToo movement. It comes just months before China hosts the Winter Olympics.
She hasn’t been seen in public nor heard from in weeks. Now an email appears and the language appears flippant.
The image released by the state controlled TV network CGTN appears to be a screenshot, with a cursor hovering on the page. All of which has raised immediate suspicions about its authenticity.
No other domestic media outlet has picked it up.
Prominent people do disappear from view in China. Sometimes it’s billionaire businessmen. It’s not usually athletes.
Sporting success, like Ms Peng’s, has become a key component of the ruling Communist Party’s soft power push. That is, however, yet to include a #MeToo moment.