The Women’s Tennis Association boss has cast doubt over the legitimacy of an email released by Chinese state media attributed to missing tennis player Peng Shuai.
WTA chairman Steve Simon said in a statement on Thursday he had a “hard time believing” the email was written by Peng or on her behalf.
It comes after the Chinese tennis star disappeared on Tuesday following allegations of sexual assault against a high-level Chinese government member.
China’s state-affiliated media outlet released an email attributed to Peng on Thursday, denying the claims of sexual assault or that she was missing.
The email says she allegations are “not true” and that she had “just been resting at home and everything is fine”.
“I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her,” Simon said in a statement.
“Peng Shuai displayed incredible courage in describing an allegation of sexual assault against a former top official in the Chinese government.
“The WTA and the rest of the world need independent and verifiable proof that she is safe.
“I have repeatedly tried to reach her via numerous forms of communications, to no avail.”
The 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 wrote in a lengthy social media post on November 2, saying the former vice-premier had forced her to have sex despite repeated refusals.
The post was removed from her verified account on Wiebo, a leading Chinese social media platform, and China’s entirely state-controlled media has suppressed all reporting on the case.
She has not been seen or heard from publicly since.
Mr Simon said that the sexual assault allegation must be investigated “with full transparency and without censorship”.
Naomi Osaka is one of the latest tennis names to express her shock at Peng’s disappearance.
The Japanese former world No.1 and four-time major winner posted on social media on Wednesday to join those asking: Where is Peng Shuai?
“Not sure if you’ve been following the news but I was recently informed of a fellow tennis player that has gone missing shortly after revealing that she has been sexually abused. Censorship is never OK at any cost,” Osaka wrote in a Twitter post under the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai.
The 24-year-old Osaka, who hasn’t played at tour-level since her US Open title defence ended in a third-round loss in September, said she hoped Peng and her family “are safe and OK”.
“I’m in shock of the current situation,” she wrote, “and I’m sending love and light her way.”
Other leading players, including men’s No.1 Novak Djokovic, expressed shock, and the organisers of the women’s and men’s professional tennis tours have called for a full investigation into the allegations made by the two-time grand slam doubles champion.
Reports of the allegations circulated overseas for more than a week before Simon issued a statement saying “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.”
The men’s tour followed on Monday, with ATP Chairman Andrea Gaudenzi saying tennis authorities were “deeply concerned by the uncertainty surrounding the immediate safety and whereabouts of WTA player Peng Shuai”.
Peng, 35, won 23 tour-level doubles titles, including at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014. She was a semi-finalist in singles at the US Open in 2014.
Peng hasn’t played at the top tier since the Qatar Open in February 2020, before restrictions imposed for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Peng also played in three Olympics – 2008, 2012 and 2016 – but the International Olympic Committee has remained silent about her allegations.
The IOC and China are organising the Beijing Winter Olympics starting on February 4.
– with AAP