Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon reviews the latest in the ongoing saga.
Where is Peng Shuai?
Remember her? The 35-year-old is a Chinese professional tennis player, with a little over 800 career singles matches played to her name. She also has a US Open semifinal berth from 2014, two singles titles, as well as a career-high of No. 14. Not too shabby.
Her resume in doubles shines even brighter actually. Peng won the 2013 Wimbledon, 2013 WTA Finals and 2014 French Open doubles titles, made the US Open semifinal, the Australian Open final, and has also won 20 other doubles tournaments. Most impressively, her career-high ranking in doubles is No. 1.
That’s right, for a while in 2014, the Chinese was the best doubles player in women’s tennis. And today in 2021, her whereabouts are rather unknown.
What happened to Peng Shuai?
On November 2, Peng shared a lengthy message on her verified Weibo account, where she accused a high-ranking member of the Chinese Communist Party of sexual assault. The message was deleted within a few minutes and all discussion of the case inside the country has been subject to blanket censorship. From there, Chinese officials followed the party line and, in public statements, either said they had no knowledge of the case to begin with or that it was not a matter of diplomacy.
You see, folks had no choice but to ask public officials about the matter, because Peng had gone silent on social media. She could technically have decided to remove the message herself and to then shy away from the public eye, but if you believe this then we have a house to sell you.
What’s that got to do with tennis?
What, are you saying that a former tennis player accusing a high-ranking official of sexual assault, then immediately going silent on social media, is not good enough for you?
Well on November 14, or a little under two weeks after Peng had shared the message online, WTA chief executive Steve Simon made a first public statement about the matter. He asked that Chinese authorities conduct an independent investigation into Peng’s accusation, and called for an end to censorship on the topic. Simon, essentially, wanted to know why no one associated with the WTA (read: anyone independent of China) had managed to reach Peng directly and vouch for her whereabouts and her safety.
Soon afterward, tennis players from both the WTA and the ATP, as well as plenty of other sports figures, started sharing the #FreePengShuai and #WhereIsPengShuai hashtags on social media.
From there, the news spread like wildfire. Followed a few days of back and forth between Western institutions trying to ramp up the pressure on the Chinese government, and the Chinese government mostly doing nothing but asking one of their loyal tentacles to release email X or chat transcript Y that was allegedly proving that Peng was safe.
The easy fix, of course, would be for the Chinese government to let Peng speak for herself, but China doesn’t believe in easy.
Where do things stand now?
Not a whole lot of things have changed since. On November 21, the International Olympic Committee announced that its president Thomas Bach had managed to call Peng and speak to her. They said that the Chinese player was “safe and well, living at her home in Beijing, but would like to have her privacy respected at this time.”
Here again, the sound you hear is our eyes rolling in the back of our head. All you need to know about whether this video call with the IOC means anything is that the IOC has refused to release the video of its call with Peng, essentially continuing the censorship on behalf of the Chinese government. And, of course, that Bach is also, erm, smack in the middle of a huge conflict of interest.
Why would the IOC do anything but pay lip service here? Well, because the next time the IOC stands up for something other than money and its bottom line will be the first time it does. The 2022 Olympics are in Beijing from Feb 4 to Feb 20, 2022, and Mr. Bach doesn’t want to compromise its big Winter party in China next year.
That’s probably what makes Simon drawing a line in the sand so stunning. It’s not like women’s tennis, with its numerous events in China spread out on the tennis calendar, wouldn’t have a financial incentive to adopt a more passive role.
But the WTA looked beyond the money. Good for them, but where is Peng Shuai?
Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG