Serena Williams joined the growing list of people demanding information on the well-being of Peng Shuai, who has not been seen since accusing a former Chinese politician of sexual assault.
Peng, a two-time major doubles champion, had her online footprint wiped from Chinese social media minutes after posting her allegations against Zhang Gaoli, one of China’s former top leaders, on November 2.
Wednesday’s bizarre development, when a Chinese state media channel released an email purported to have been sent by Peng retracting all of her claims against the politician, did little to allay concerns and Steve Simon, the Women’s Tennis Association chairman, questioned the email’s authenticity.
Williams, the 23-time major champion, said: “I am devastated and shocked to hear about the news of my peer. I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible.”
Laura Robson, the former British No 1, called it “very concerning”. Judy Murray reposted an image of Peng with the trending hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai, while Hong Kong-born British tennis player Tara Moore said it made “no sense”.
Moore reshared Peng’s original Weibo post, including the allegations, and said: “Why would she post something like this if it was ‘untrue’ and ‘false’. Share Peng Shuai’s story. She cannot be silenced.”
Speaking on US television yesterday, Simon said: “We definitely want to speak to her directly to make sure she’s OK. We have to insist on an investigation.”
Peng (35) alleges that she and Zhang, a former vice-premier in Beijing, had a consensual on-off relationship and that, after his retirement from politics in 2018, he had forced her to have sex against her will. The email retracting these claims, said to have been written by Peng, said the WTA had been spreading false information.
The WTA has 11 tournaments based in China, and a lucrative long-term deal that gives it hosting rights for the year-end finals. In speaking out against the state, the WTA risks losing that, as the Chinese government has previously shown little tolerance to criticism from sporting bodies aiming to benefit from their huge market. But the WTA warned on Sunday that it could pull its tournaments regardless.
The men’s tour called for an investigation, too, but stopped short of threatening to boycott the country. The International Tennis Federation said: “We support a full investigation into this matter.”
Stephen Kinnock, the Labour MP and foreign policy spokesman joined MP Julian Knight in speaking out. He said “the Chinese state need to provide evidence that Peng Shuai is alive, well and free”, adding that he had written to British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss to ask “what representations she has made”.
Barcelona’s Gerard Pique became the first high-profile athlete outside of tennis to use the #WhereIsPengShuai hashtag, while two-time major champion Stan Wawrinka, former world No 1 Amelie Mauresmo and France’s Nicolas Mahut also posted about it online.
Doubles player Mahut added more pressure on Thomas Bach, the International Olympic Committee president, with the Winter Olympics due to be held in Beijing in February.
“The voices of women need to be heard and respected. Thomas Bach, do you not feel involved?”
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