Concerns are mounting for a Chinese tennis star, who has vanished just days after claiming sexual assault by a high-level Chinese government member.
Peng Shuai, a former-top ranked doubles player and one of China’s biggest sporting stars, claimed earlier this month that she had been assaulted by former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli.
Peng made the allegations on her Weibo social media account on November 2. She said Mr Gaoli, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee – China’s top decision-making body – had coerced her into sex and they later had an on-off consensual relationship.
Peng, 35, said in the post, which was deleted about half an hour after it was published, that she could provide no evidence to back her allegations.
But Peng – who won 23 tour-level doubles titles, including at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014, and was a singles semi-finalist at the US Open in 2014 – has not been heard from since the post was deleted.
Chinese officials have refused to answer questions about her. But her disappearance has sparked concern across world tennis.
Men’s world No.1 Novak Djokovic expressed his shock on Tuesday (Australian time).
“More so that it’s someone that I’ve seen on the tour in previous years quite a few times,” he said.
“There’s not much more to say than to hope that she’s OK and it’s just terrible … I can imagine how her family feels, you know, that she’s missing.”
The former chief executive of the Women’s Tennis Association that negotiated millions of dollars of rights deals with China has told Reuters the tennis world has put Peng’s health and safety before any commercial interests.
“Our sport is focusing on the health and safety of Peng Shuai, business is secondary,” Stacey Allaster, who is now the CEO of the Professional Tennis for the United States Tennis Association (USTA) told Reuters on Monday.
“It is tough and it also is tough for this very courageous young woman that has broken her silence and come forward with these allegations.”
Ms Allaster was the WTA’s chairman and CEO from 2009-15, a period that saw women’s tennis make a massive push into the China market.
China has been the focus of the WTA’s expansion in the past decade and hosted nine tournaments in 2019 with a total of $30.4 million ($A41.3m) prizemoney on offer.
The season-ending WTA Finals had a prize purse of $19 million in 2019, when it was played in Shenzhen for the first time.
The Finals were cancelled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and moved this year to Mexico. But the WTA has said it will return to Shenzhen from 2022 until 2030.
“How all that unfolds is very difficult to say at this point but decisions will have to be made,” Ms Allaster said.
“(WTA Chairman and CEO) Steve Simon’s statement made it clear that they need to fully support Peng Shuai.
“This is a very important moment for the WTA’s business and history.”
Mr Simon said Peng’s disappearance was “of deep concern” and called for her claims to be “treated with the utmost seriousness”.
“Our absolute and unwavering priority is the health and safety of our players. We are speaking out so justice can be done,” he said.
However, he also told the New York Times that: “We’ve received confirmation from several sources, including the Chinese Tennis Association, that she is safe and not under any physical threat.”