Beijing has taken umbrage at the Women’s Tennis Association’s decision to suspend all tournaments in China after the organisation made its strong stand over the safety of Peng Shuai.
It comes amid reports of second video call with the missing tennis star, and as the ATP faces a growing backlash for not doing more to pressure China for information about her whereabouts.
The WTA announced its decision on Wednesday, amid rising concerns for Peng, who vanished just days after levelling an accusation of sexual assault at a former high-ranking Chinese government official.
On Thursday, China foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin took a swipe at the WTA, without mentioning it by name, saying pointedly that China “opposes the politicisation of sports”.
In an editorial, the Global Times newspaper, which is published by the ruling Communist Party’s People’s Daily, said the WTA was betraying the Olympic spirit and bringing politics into tennis.
“Some forces in the West are instigating a boycott against the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics,” it added, referring to the February event which some rights groups want boycotted over China’s human rights record.
Peng, a former world No. 1 doubles player, was not seen in public for nearly three weeks after she posted a message on social media in early November accusing China’s former Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli of forcing her into sex.
Neither Mr Zhang, who retired in 2018, nor the government have commented on Peng’s accusation and the topic has been blocked on China’s heavily-censored internet.
Peng, a three-time Olympian, did appear in mid-November at a dinner with friends and a children’s tennis tournament in Beijing, photographs and videos published by Chinese state media and by the tournament’s organisers showed.
The International Olympic Committee has reported a second video call with the 35-year-old player on Wednesday, following one late last month.
The IOC said it had offered Peng support, would stay in regular touch, and had agreed a personal meeting in January.
She appeared to be “safe and well, given the difficult situation she is in”, it added in its statement on Thursday.
But the US-based WTA remains unconvinced. It wants further assurances of Peng’s well-being and an investigation before it returns to the lucrative Chinese market.
“While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe, and not subject to censorship, coercion, and intimidation,” chief executive Steve Simon said, suggesting she was pressured to retract her allegation.
Equality for women would suffer a setback if powerful people could suppress accusations of assault, he added.
“I am also greatly concerned about the risks that all of our players and staff could face if we were to hold events in China in 2022.”
From former women’s greats Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova to men’s No. 1 Novak Djokovic, many in the tennis world have applauded the WTA, which stands to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in TV and sponsorship revenue.
“Really strong stance. Far bigger things in the world than a game of tennis,” said Australian player John Millman.
The ATP, the men’s tour organiser, and the ITF, tennis’s global governing body, have also expressed concern for Peng but stopped short of joining the WTA in suspending their tournaments in China.
“The situation involving Peng Shuai continues to raise serious concerns within and beyond our sport. The response to those concerns has so far fallen short,” ATP chairman Andrea Gaudenzi said.
“We will continue to consult with our members and monitor any developments as this issue evolves.”
The ITF said Peng’s allegations must be addressed.
“Our primary concern remains Peng Shuai’s well-being … We will continue to support all efforts being made to that end, both publicly and behind the scenes.”
Those statements fell flat with some of the sport’s biggest names.
“Are we to understand that the ATP would have made the same statement had the player been a male? Somehow I think not,” 18-time Grand Slam champion Martina Navratilova tweeted.
Former world No.1 Andy Roddick said the statement showed “how to say a lot of words and say nothing” while American compatriot Mardy Fish asked: “That’s a statement?”
Britain’s Liam Broady, who tweeted on Thursday asking for “a united response across all organisations” also criticised the ATP.