The WTA chief has spent years in tennis working quietly to put players first. Suspending tournaments in China over the treatment of star Peng Shuai has made him the most talked-about leader in sports.Guadalajara, Mexico, gave a party for women’s tennis last month, and when it ended, with Garbiñe Muguruza winning the WTA Finals, the season’s last tournament, confetti fell through the air and a mariachi band turned the Akron Tennis Stadium into a fiesta.In the middle of it, Steve Simon, the bespectacled chairman and chief executive of the WTA Tour, stood quietly and unsmiling in a blue business suit with his hands clasped. He shared the occasional quiet word with Chris Evert and Billie Jean King, or one of the local officials he had helped persuade into holding the event on short notice, after the regular host, Shenzhen, China, pulled out because of the pandemic.Simon had plenty else on his mind. As the tournament and closing celebration unfolded, a geopolitical crisis with women’s tennis at its center had occupied much of his time and he was leading the tour down an uncertain path.On Nov. 2, the Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai accused Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier of China, of sexually assaulting her in social media posts that were quickly deleted.The Chinese government removed all mentions of Peng’s accusation, and coverage of Peng from news media outside China has been censored. She largely disappeared from public life, and Simon has been unable to communicate with her despite repeated attempts.On Nov. 13, Simon went public with his frustration, demanding that he and the WTA be able to speak with Peng independently and that Chinese officials conduct a transparent investigation into her allegations. If they did not comply, Simon said, the WTA would consider removing its nine tournaments from China, including the Tour Finals, moves that could cost women’s tennis tens and perhaps hundreds, of millions of dollars over the next decade.On Wednesday, Simon followed through on his threat, announcing that after weeks of failed attempts to communicate with Peng, and no sign of an investigation or evidence that Peng can speak freely, the WTA was immediately suspending all of its tournaments in China. Simon’s stridency, in contrast to other international sports leagues and organizations that do business in China, has turned Simon, a mild-mannered former tournament director who prefers to operate in the background and leave the spotlight to his star players, into the most talked-about leader in sports.“This is not where I wanted to end up,” Simon said in an interview Wednesday night, speaking about the WTA Tour, but also, in a sense, about himself.Peng Shuai competing at the Australian Open in 2017.Clive Brunskill/Getty Images“I don’t want this to be about me,” he added. “Nothing prepared me for it, other than just trying to do what is right and communicating that with the players.”Simon’s refusal to accept China’s authoritarian stance on human rights once it directly affected one of his players stands in stark contrast to several high-profile leaders in sports who have repeatedly bent to the desires of the Chinese, including Adam Silver, the commissioner of the N.B.A., and Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee.Simon has been concerned about Peng’s physical safety but also believed, as did the members of his player council and others he communicates with regularly in a player chat group, that the silencing of Peng and her sexual assault allegation amounted to a direct attack on the principle of equality upon which the WTA was founded.“It’s now December and we’ve not seen any meaningful progress,” he said Wednesday night.Simon, a 66-year-old Southern California native, played tennis at Long Beach State University and mixed doubles at Wimbledon in 1981 alongside Lea Antonoplis. He has spent his adult life in tennis coaching, running the tennis program for Adidas, and organizing and eventually directing the BNP Paribas Open, a joint men’s and women’s event in Indian Wells, Calif., known as the fifth Grand Slam.All along, Simon was quietly gaining authority within tennis circles, even if few of the players knew him particularly well. He began serving on the board of the WTA in 2004.In 2009, he worked to get Stacey Allaster, then the president of the WTA, appointed as the next chief executive. Allaster said during a rough moment for her candidacy, she privately asked Simon if he might be a better fit to lead the organization.“Without a blink he turned to me and said, ‘No, we’re going to stay the course,’” Allaster said.Six years later, after Allaster decided to step down, the WTA board unanimously selected Simon to succeed her. He has since cultivated the support of the sport’s biggest stars of the present and past, including Serena Williams and King, the founder of the WTA, while maintaining his decades-long relationships with the tournament directors who were his initial base of support.“He’s a rarity in sports,” said John Tobias, a prominent tennis agent who represents Sloane Stephens, the 2017 U.S. Open women’s singles champion. “An executive who is always trying to put the focus on the tour and the players.”Before this month, Simon was best known for the work he performed behind the scenes, along with the former pro Charlie Pasarell and others, to bring Venus and Serena Williams back to Indian Wells after a 14-year absence. Serena Williams was ceaselessly booed by fans after her sister withdrew from a semifinal match between them. Williams believed that race had played a role in how fans treated her. She said at the time that Simon spent a long time listening to what she had to say on the matter and that played a major role in her decision to return.Understand the Disappearance of Peng ShuaiCard 1 of 5Where is Peng Shuai? More
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Olympic officials said they ‘shared the same concern as many’ about the safety of the Chinese tennis star but offered no details of what they discussed with her.The International Olympic Committee said Thursday that it had held a second call with the Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, trying anew to deflect criticism of its light-touch approach to China only months before the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing.“We share the same concern as many other people and organizations about the well-being and safety of Peng Shuai,” the I.O.C. statement said. “This is why, just yesterday, an IOC team held another video call with her. We have offered her wide-ranging support, will stay in regular touch with her, and have already agreed on a personal meeting in January.”IOC Statement on the situation of Peng Shuaihttps://t.co/7wDhc0w33f— IOC MEDIA (@iocmedia) December 2, 2021
As with an earlier call with Peng on Nov. 21, the I.O.C. did not release video or a transcript of the call, nor did it say how Wednesday’s call was arranged or who took part. The previous call included the I.O.C.’s president, Thomas Bach but also an I.O.C. member from China.Peng, 35, disappeared from public view more than a month ago after she accused Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier of China, of sexual assault. Her disappearance, China’s efforts to censor any mention of her allegations and its sometimes clumsy efforts to suggest she had retracted her claims, have only intensified concerns about her safety with tennis officials, fellow athletes and human rights groups.The I.O.C. statement, like its earlier statements on Peng, made no mention of her sexual assault claims, referring only to “the difficult situation she is in.”The latest call, which the I.O.C. said took place on Wednesday, came on the same day the women’s professional tennis tour announced it would suspend all of its events in China, including Hong Kong, until the Chinese government took several measures. It called for the government to stop censoring Peng, allow her to speak and travel freely and “investigate the allegation of sexual assault in a full, fair and transparent manner.”Olympic officials have been on the defensive for weeks for their relative silence on Peng’s disappearance, which critics of both the organization and of China have derided as an attempt to avoid even the appearance of criticizing a powerful partner. The looming Winter Olympics in China, which will make Beijing the first city to host the Summer and Winter Games, open on Feb. 4.The I.O.C. has countered that its effort to aid Peng has been a campaign of “quiet diplomacy,” a phrase it repeated in Thursday’s statement.“There are different ways to achieve her well-being and safety,” the I.O.C. said. “We have taken a very human and person-centered approach to her situation. Since she is a three-time Olympian, the I.O.C. is addressing these concerns directly with Chinese sports organizations. We are using ‘quiet diplomacy’ which, given the circumstances and based on the experience of governments and other organizations, is indicated to be the most promising way to proceed effectively in such humanitarian matters.” More
Steve Simon said Wednesday that the women’s tennis tour would not stage tournaments in China, including Hong Kong, because he has been unable to communicate with Peng despite repeated attempts.The women’s professional tennis tour announced Wednesday that it was immediately suspending all tournaments in China, including Hong Kong, in response to the disappearance from public life of the tennis star Peng Shuai after she accused a top Communist Party leader of sexual assault.With the move, the Women’s Tennis Association became the only major sports organization to push back against China’s increasingly authoritarian government. Women’s tennis officials made the decision after they were unable to speak directly with Peng after she accused Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier of China, in social media posts that were quickly deleted.The Chinese government quickly removed all mentions of Peng’s accusation, and coverage of Peng from news media outside China has been censored. She has not been seen in public except in the company of government officials in more than two weeks.Peng, 35, a Grand Slam doubles champion and three-time Olympian, resurfaced late last month in a series of appearances with Chinese officials, including in a video conference with Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, which will bring the Winter Games to Beijing in February.“While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation,” Steve Simon, the chief executive of the Women’s Tennis Association, said in a statement.“If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug, then the basis on which the WTA was founded — equality for women — would suffer an immense setback,” he added. “I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players.”The WTA held its 2019 Tour Finals in Shenzhen, China.Aly Song/ReutersThe suspension comes just two months before the start of an Olympics that makes Beijing the first city to host both the summer and winter Games. The I.O.C. has not indicated that the Peng controversy would affect the Games, with Richard W. Pound, a Canadian lawyer and the organization’s longest-serving member, saying that the committee prefers “quiet and discreet diplomacy.”No other sports organization has followed the WTA’s lead.“We cannot walk away from issues related to sexual assault,” Simon told The Times in an interview Wednesday night. “If we do that we are telling the world that is OK and it’s not important. That is what this is about.”“It’s the right move and I’m so proud of the WTA for taking it,” Martina Navratilova, the former champion, said. “Now we are just going to have to see if the other sports, especially the ATP, will follow.”The governing body for the men’s tour, the Association of Tennis Professionals, asked for an investigation into Peng’s safety, but has not suggested it would boycott China. And on Tuesday, World Athletics, the governing body for track and field, affirmed that it would hold its relay championships in Guangzhou in 2023. The organization is led by Sebastian Coe, a leading member of the I.O.C.China is a vast market that has provided a huge opportunity for growth among sports organizations, including Premier League soccer, the National Basketball Association, and professional tennis and golf. Doing business in China has become both lucrative and complicated in recent years as the country’s government has cracked down on free speech and political protest. Its treatment of Muslim minorities has been deemed genocide by the United States and lawmakers in several nations.Michael Lynch, who led the sports marketing division for Visa during his 16-year tenure at the company, said he expected that tennis would not be the only sport to re-examine its business in China because of the treatment of Peng. “Let’s hope this is not considered a female problem,” Lynch said. “They are all athletes. It doesn’t matter sex or gender. If there is more pressure that needs to be applied, sports will support one another. What we saw with Black Lives Matter is this is about human rights and everyone is coming to the table and supporting each other.”Women’s tennis stands to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in the coming years by pulling out of China. The tour has a 10-year deal to hold its season-ending tournament in Shenzhen, where organizers committed to some $150 million in prize money and millions more on tennis development in the country. The organization also holds eight other tournaments in the country.“I don’t see how I can ask our athletes to compete there when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault,” Simon said. “Given the current state of affairs, 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.”Simon said that women’s tennis would not return to China until its officials could speak to Peng without government interference and a full investigation into her assault accusations could be conducted. “China’s leaders have left the WTA with no choice.”Peng accused Zhang, 75, of sexually assaulting her at his home three years ago. She also described having had an on-and-off consensual relationship with Zhang.Then she quickly dropped out of public life. As demands for an inquiry grew louder, China’s state-owned broadcaster released a message that it claimed was from Peng, recanting her accusations.“Hello everyone this is Peng Shuai,” it stated before calling her initial accusation of sexual assault untrue. “I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve been resting at home and everything is fine. Thank you again for caring about me.”The message, which few believed was actually from Peng herself, only raised concerns further, as did additional photos and videos of her that began to appear — all from sources in China’s government-controlled media.Understand the Disappearance of Peng ShuaiCard 1 of 5Where is Peng Shuai? More
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EMMA RADUCANU has revealed “role model” Lewis Hamilton has helped her deal with her newfound pressure and fame.The tennis star, 19, has seen her status skyrocket since winning the US Open in September.
Emma Raducanu described “cool” Lewis Hamilton as a “role model”Credit: Getty
Hamilton has given Raducanu advice on how to deal with pressure and fameCredit: The Mega Agency
And Hamilton, who also rose to fame at a young age after winning the Formula One Championship in 2008 at the age of 23, has offered words of advice to Raducanu.
Speaking after playing at the Royal Albert Hall, Raducanu said: “He’s just been really cool in helping me.
“He said: ‘Be patient, you’ve just got to ride the wave. It’s all good. Don’t worry.’ Good reassurance.
“He has been such a good role model for me in terms of helping me out through the next stage. He’s a really cool guy.”
Raducanu is a big F1 fan having competed in motorsports as a youngster.
And she is backing Hamilton to win BBC Sports Personality of the Year, despite being a favourite for the award herself.
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She said: “The BBC Awards are something that’s so far out of the realms of possibility for me to win. I’m rooting for Lewis in the race.”
Raducanu and Hamilton, 36, met at the glitzy Met Gala Ball in New York in September shortly after her incredible Slam victory at Flushing Meadows.
Raducanu’s appearance in the Champions Tennis Exhibition at the Royal Albert Hall was her first return to a UK court since that famous win, and she appeared to enjoy beating training partner Elena-Gabriela Ruse 6-3, 7-6.
Emma Raducanu plays first game back in Britain after US Open triumph in Royal Albert Hall exhibition More
Zhang Gaoli was best known as a low-key technocrat. Then a Chinese tennis star’s allegations made him a symbol of a system that bristles against scrutiny.Before Zhang Gaoli was engulfed in accusations that he had sexually assaulted a tennis champion, he seemed to embody the qualities that the Chinese Communist Party prizes in officials: austere, disciplined, and impeccably loyal to the leader of the day.He had climbed steadily from running an oil refinery to a succession of leadership posts along China’s fast-growing coast, avoiding the scandals and controversy that felled other, flashily ambitious politicians. He became known, if for anything, for his monotone impersonality. On entering China’s top leadership, he invited people to search for anything amiss in his behavior. “Stern, low-key, taciturn,” summed up one of the few profiles of him in the Chinese media. His interests, Xinhua news agency said, included books, chess and tennis.Now the allegation from Peng Shuai, the professional tennis player, has cast Mr. Zhang’s private life under a blaze of international attention, making him a symbol of a political system that prizes secrecy and control over open accountability. The allegation raises questions about how far Chinese officials carry their declared ideals of clean-living integrity into their heavily guarded homes.“Zhang epitomized the image of the bland apparatchik that the party has worked hard to cultivate,” said Jude Blanchette, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.Ms. Peng’s account — that Mr. Zhang coerced her into sex during a yearslong, on-off relationship — has not been corroborated. The Chinese authorities’ vigorous efforts to stifle any mention of the matter suggest there is little chance that Mr. Zhang will ever be called to public account, even if that might clear his name. Neither Ms. Peng nor Mr. Zhang have made any public comment since her post appeared.“One would have to imagine, sadly, that in an opaque and patriarchal system of unchecked power these sorts of abuses are not uncommon,” Mr. Blanchette added.China’s Peng Shuai serves against Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard during their women’s singles match at the Australian Open in 2019.Jewel Samad/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesWhen Ms. Peng, 35, posted her accusation on the popular social media platform Weibo on the night of Nov. 2, she took readers into the cosseted personal lives of the Communist Party’s elite. In Ms. Peng’s post, addressed to Mr. Zhang, she said the two had met more than a decade earlier when her career was taking off and his was nearing its peak. At the time, she wrote, he was the Communist Party chief of Tianjin, a northern port city, and he told her his political position made it impossible for him to divorce his wife.Mr. Zhang dropped contact with her, the post said, after ascending to the Communist Party’s highest body, the Politburo Standing Committee, a post he held for five years. During this time, he was entrusted with overseeing China’s initial preparations for the 2022 Winter Olympics, which is now being overshadowed by the furor.About three years ago, after stepping down, Mr. Zhang called the head of a tennis academy to summon Ms. Peng to play tennis with him at a party-owned hotel in Beijing, called the Kangming, that plays host to retired officials, according to her post. Later that day, she said, he forced her to have sex in his home. They resumed a relationship, but he insisted it remain furtive. She had to switch cars to be able to enter the government compound where he lives in Beijing, she wrote. He warned her to tell no one, not even her mother. With rarely a word or hair out of place, Mr. Zhang has seemed an unlikely protagonist for a scandal that has rippled around the world. He belongs to a generation of officials who rose after the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution, taking on the self-effacing ethos of collective leadership under Hu Jintao, who preceded the country’s current leader, Xi Jinping.Zhang Gaoli, right, then secretary of the Tianjin Communist Party, meeting with Lien Chan, former chairman of Taiwan’s Nationalist Party, during a business forum in Tianjin in 2008. Andy Wong/Associated PressMr. Zhang, who turned 75 the day before Ms. Peng’s post appeared, was born in a fishing village in Fujian Province. According to official accounts, his father died when he was a child. He began studying economics at Xiamen University in Fujian, but his education was cut short by the Cultural Revolution, when Mao Zedong largely shut down university classes.In 1970, he was assigned to work at oil fields in southern China, where he first heaved bags of cement, according to official profiles.Within years, he climbed into management. As Deng Xiaoping and other leaders shepherded China into an era of market reforms, Mr. Zhang became one of those officials whose economic expertise and smattering of higher education marked them for promotion. He perfected the methodical, button-down manner of a cadre who had submerged his life in the party hierarchy.In this handout photo, members of the Politburo Standing Committee, including Zhang Gaoli, far left, attend a meeting of the Communist Party’s Central Committee in Beijing in 2016.Li Xueren/Xinhua, via Associated PressHe served as the party leader of Shenzhen, the city next to Hong Kong that Deng promoted as a showpiece of China’s newfound commercial dynamism. He won the favor of Deng’s successor, Jiang Zemin, and by the early 2000s was put in charge of Shandong, a province crowded with ports and factories.In 2007, he was promoted to oversee Tianjin, the provincial-level port whose fortunes had flagged while other coastal areas boomed. Mr. Zhang pushed plans to convert a drab industrial area of Tianjin into a modern business precinct — a “new Manhattan” — that would attract multinationals and wealthy residents. That project has faltered under debt and inflated expectations, but Mr. Zhang moved upward into the central leadership in 2012. He became executive vice premier: in effect, China’s deputy prime minister.Understand the Disappearance of Peng ShuaiCard 1 of 5Where is Peng Shuai? More
Accustomed to forcing messages on audiences at home and abroad, its propaganda machine hasn’t learned how to craft a narrative that stands up to scrutiny.The Chinese government has become extremely effective in controlling what the country’s 1.4 billion people think and talk about.But influencing the rest of the world is a different matter, as Peng Shuai has aptly demonstrated.Chinese state media and its journalists have offered one piece of evidence after another to prove the star Chinese tennis player was safe and sound despite her public accusation of sexual assault against a powerful former vice premier.One Beijing-controlled outlet claimed it obtained an email she wrote in which she denied the accusations. Another offered up a video of Ms. Peng at a dinner, in which she and her companions rather conspicuously discussed the date to prove that it was recorded this past weekend.The international outcry grew only louder. Instead of persuading the world, China’s ham-handed response has become a textbook example of its inability to communicate with an audience that it can’t control through censorship and coercion.The ruling Communist Party communicates through one-way, top-down messaging. It seems to have a hard time understanding that persuasive narratives must be backed by facts and verified by credible, independent sources. In its official comments, China’s foreign ministry has mostly dodged questions about Ms. Peng, claiming first to be unaware of the matter, then that the topic fell outside its purview. On Tuesday, Zhao Lijian, a spokesman, leaned on a familiar tactic: questioning the motives behind the coverage of Ms. Peng’s allegations. “I hope certain people will stop malicious hype, not to mention to politicize it,” he told reporters.China has grown more sophisticated in recent years at using the power of the internet to advance a more positive, less critical narrative — an effort that appears to work from time to time. But at its heart, China’s propaganda machine still believes the best way to make problems disappear is to shout down the other side. It can also threaten to close off access to its vast market and booming economy to silence companies and governments that don’t buy their line.“Messages like these are meant as a demonstration of power: ‘We are telling you that she is fine, and who are you to say otherwise?’” Mareike Ohlberg, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund, a Berlin research institute, wrote on Twitter. “It’s not meant to convince people but to intimidate and demonstrate the power of the state.”Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, has tightened limits on relatively independent media outlets and critical online voices.Greg Baker/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesChina has a history of less-than-believable testimonials. A jailed prominent lawyer denounced her son on state television for fleeing the country. A Hong Kong bookstore manager who was detained for selling books about the private lives of Chinese leaders said after his release that he had to make a dozen recorded confessions before his captors were satisfied.This time, the world of women’s tennis isn’t playing along and has suggested it will stop holding events in China until it is sure Ms. Peng is truly free of government control. The biggest names in tennis — Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic, among many others — don’t seem to be afraid to lose access to a potential market of 1.4 billion tennis fans either. The pushback is problematic because the Winter Olympics in Beijing are just weeks away from opening.The country’s huge army of propagandists has failed its top leader Xi Jinping’s expectations that it take control of the global narrative about China. But it shouldn’t take all the blame: The failure is ingrained in the controlling nature of China’s authoritarian system.“It can make Peng Shuai play any role, including putting up a show of being free,” Pin Ho, a New York-based media businessman, wrote on Twitter.For Chinese officials in charge of crisis management, he continued, such control is routine. “But for the free world,” he said, “this is even more frightening than forced confessions.”One of the biggest giveaways that Ms. Peng isn’t free to speak her mind is that her name remains censored on the Chinese internet.“As long as coverages about her inside and outside China are different, she’s not speaking freely,” said Rose Luqiu, an assistant professor of journalism at the Hong Kong Baptist University.Ms. Peng appeared in a live video call with the president of the International Olympic Committee and other officials within the organization. But women’s tennis officials still have their doubts.Greg Martin/IOC, Agence France-Presse, via Getty ImagesDespite the outpouring of concern about Ms. Peng’s well-being on Twitter and other online platforms that are blocked in China, the Chinese public has little knowledge of the discussions.Late Friday night, as the momentum of the hashtag #whereispengshuai was building on Twitter, I couldn’t find any discussion of the question on Chinese social media. Still, Ms. Peng had clearly caught the attention of politically observant Chinese. I messaged a friend in Beijing who was usually on top of hot topics and asked generally, in coded words, if she had heard about a huge campaign to find someone. “PS?” the friend guessed, using Ms. Peng’s initials.It’s hard to estimate how many Chinese people learned about Ms. Peng’s allegation, which she detailed in a post on Chinese social media earlier this month. Her post — which named Zhang Gaoli, a former top Communist Party leader, as her assailant — was deleted within minutes. One Weibo social media user asked in a comment whether saving a screenshot of Ms. Peng’s post was incriminating. Another Weibo user, in a comment, described being too scared to share the post.They have good reasons to be afraid. Beijing has made it easier to detain or charge people for what they say online. Many people get their social media accounts deleted for simply sharing content that the censors deemed inappropriate, including #MeToo-related content.Ms. Peng accused Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier and top Communist Party leader, of sexual assault in a social media post.How Hwee Young/European Pressphoto AgencyChina has been bitter about its poor image in the Western mainstream news media and has talked for years about taking control of the narrative. Mr. Xi, the top leader, said that he hoped the country would have the capacity to shape a global narrative that’s compatible with its rising status in the world. “Tell the China story well,” he instructed. “Create a credible, lovable and respectable image of China.”Official media has raised the suggestion that Covid-19 emerged from a lab in the United States and spread the unproven allegation on Facebook and Twitter. China released thousands of videos on YouTube and other Western platforms in which Uyghurs said they were “very free” and “very happy” while the Communist Party was carrying out repressive policies against them and other Muslim ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region.In reality, China is less respected, and its narratives less credible, since Mr. Xi took power nine years ago. He cracked down on relatively independent media outlets and eliminated critical online voices within the country. He unleashed diplomats and nationalistic youth who would roar back any hint of criticism or belittlement.“There are three things that are inevitable in life: life, death and humiliating China,” a reader commented on a recent column of mine.Despite China’s relatively fast economic growth and relatively competent response to the pandemic, the country’s deteriorating human rights records and its uncompromising international stance are not helping its image. The negative views of China in the vast majority of the world’s advanced economies reached a historic high last year, according to Pew Research Center.China can’t respond to the questions about Ms. Peng effectively because it can’t even address the problem directly. The subject of Ms. Peng’s sexual assault allegation, Mr. Zhang, had been one of the Communist Party’s most powerful officials before he retired. The party sees criticism of a top leader as a direct attack on the whole organization, so it won’t repeat her allegation. As a result, the state media journalists who are trying to argue that Ms. Peng is fine can’t even refer to it directly.“I don’t believe Ms. Peng has received retaliation and repression speculated by foreign media for the thing people talked about,” Hu Xijin, editor of the Global Times.Giulia Marchi for The New York TimesFor Hu Xijin, the editor of the nationalist Global Times tabloid, the allegation against Mr. Zhang has become “the thing.” “I don’t believe Peng Shuai has received retaliation and repression speculated by foreign media for the thing people talked about,” he wrote on Twitter.Mr. Zhang can’t even be discussed online in China. Those who do call him “kimchi” because his given name sounds like the name of an ancient Korean dynasty.If Mr. Hu, China’s spin master, could speak more plainly, and if the Chinese people had the freedom to discuss Ms. Peng and her allegation, official media might understand how to build a narrative. Instead, Mr. Hu alternates between trying to change the conversation and trying to shut it down completely.“For those who truly care about safety of Peng Shuai, her appearances of these days are enough to relieve them or eliminate most of their worries,” he wrote. “But for those aiming to attack China’s system and boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics, facts, no matter how many, don’t work for them.” More
Turin is a smaller stage than the prestigious event had in London, but the enthusiasm was real, especially for the young Italian stars Jannik Sinner and Matteo Berrettini.TURIN, Italy — There is a massive world map in the atrium of the five-star hotel in Turin where the leading players stayed during the ATP Finals that ended Sunday.It was not the ideal metaphor. Though men’s tennis is undoubtedly global, with tournaments on six continents (no Antarctica for now), it is not at the moment an intercontinental sport at the top.As the 2021 tour season ends, the top 10 in singles is exclusively European: from 34-year-old Novak Djokovic of Serbia at No. 1 to 20-year-old Jannik Sinner of Italy at No. 10.Though there were some men’s tour executives who believed that it would have been a smarter growth strategy and safer financial decision to take the ATP Finals elsewhere — see Tokyo or Singapore — it is certainly in tune with the times that the tour’s year-end championship remained in Europe.The surprise was that it came to Turin. The ATP Finals were in London at the O2 Arena from 2009 to 2020, serving as an annual second helping of big-time tennis for a major city and major media hub that already had Wimbledon.But Turin, the new host for a five-year run, is a very different and more risky play. Though Turin is the capital of Italy’s Piedmont region, it is only the country’s fourth most populous city behind Rome, Milan and Naples. It has a tennis culture — clubs and courts are common — but does not have a regular men’s or women’s tour event and has never produced a major tennis star, although Lorenzo Sonego, 26, a Turin native currently ranked 27th, is training and playing hard to change that (he has victories over Djokovic and the 2020 U.S. Open champion Dominic Thiem).A mascot posed at the ATP Finals fan village.Alessandro Di Marco/EPA, via ShutterstockFiat, the carmaker that once dominated the city, has moved on, leaving an economic void. Turin has its strengths: fine wine and food, an Egyptian museum, an elegant city center and the soccer club Juventus. But what gave it the edge for indoor tennis was the Pala Alpitour, the largest, most up-to-date indoor arena in Italy. It was built to host ice hockey at the Winter Olympics in 2006, and Turin’s leaders were eager to rekindle the Olympic spirit and raise the city’s international profile with another significant sports event.That may be more challenging than they think. The ATP Finals is arguably the most prestigious annual men’s tennis event outside the four Grand Slam tournaments. Only the top eight men qualify in singles, and it is a goal and talking point throughout the season as well as one of the biggest paydays and ranking boosts available. An undefeated champion gets 1,500 ranking points: more than any tournament outside the Grand Slam events, whose champions get 2,000.But the ATP Finals are still nowhere near as big a fishbowl. Winning is important for a champion’s legacy but not essential. Rafael Nadal has never managed it, yet no one is about to take him off the short list of the game’s greatest players.Three of the past five ATP Finals champions — Grigor Dimitrov, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev, who won in 2018 and again on Sunday — have yet to win a Grand Slam title.But with Nadal, Thiem and Roger Federer out of action for extended periods as they recover from significant injuries, Turin got the best of what was available. No. 1 Djokovic, No. 2 Daniil Medvedev and No. 3 Zverev all reached the semifinals after coming through their round-robin groups, and all expressed satisfaction with their new playground even if Medvedev did grumpily and briefly compare it to a minor-league “challenger” event during his opening match when he had trouble getting the balls delivered to him at the pace he prefers before serving.There were certainly more significant issues, some beyond organizers’ control. The coronavirus pandemic made advance planning a challenge. Prize money was cut in half — from $14.5 million to $7.25 million — largely because of the reduced arena capacity. Though Turin had been projecting a 75 percent limit, the Italian authorities ultimately settled on 60 percent, which turned away hundreds of fans on short notice. Once inside, there were long lines and a shortage of concessions (the sponsors seemed to be doing just fine).But the enthusiasm was real and audible, even with just over 7,600 fans in the stands. It was real in Turin’s historic center as well, where shopkeepers put tennis rackets in their showcases and windows and the city turned Piazza San Carlo into a tennis village with big video screens and a small-scale court.Sinner signed autographs for fans in front of the Principi di Piemonte hotel in Turin.Jessica Pasqualon/EPA, via ShutterstockIs it better to take an event like the ATP Finals to a world city where it will be at most a sideshow or to bring it to a more modest place like Turin where it can and likely will dominate?Option No. 2 has its charms.“The Turin idea was that the city would really embrace the event, and we would have done even more if there had not been Covid,” said Andrea Gaudenzi, the chairman of the ATP Tour. “Overall, I think we have to improve a few things, especially in the fan experience outside the arena when you come without the corporate ticket. But overall, I’m personally pleased with the on-court experience.”The potential downside is that you create waves in a small pond instead of ripples in vaster uncharted waters that might help grow the game long term. With the Big Three nearing the end of their careers, men’s tennis is surely in for a lull.But after all the empty stadiums of the pandemic, buzz is an even larger virtue, and Italy is abuzz over tennis and rightly so. When Turin and the Italian Tennis Federation began lobbying for the ATP Finals in 2018, Sinner and Matteo Berrettini had not yet broken through (and Gaudenzi, a former Italian star, had not yet become chairman of the ATP).As it turned out, Berrettini, 25, a Wimbledon finalist this year, qualified directly for Turin and when he had to withdraw after one match with an abdominal injury, Sinner was ready to step in as the alternate. The atmosphere when he played was the best of the week.“We never could have imagined that two Italian players would take part in the first ATP Finals in Turin,” said Angelo Binaghi, president of the Italian Tennis Federation.That is quite a bonus, and in light of Sinner’s and Berrettini’s youth and talent, it may not be a one-time bonus. More
The tennis star won independence while remaining in Beijing’s good graces. But she has been unable to break through China’s resistance to sexual assault allegations.When Peng Shuai was a young tennis player in China’s national sports system, she battled officials for control over her own professional career — and she won.When she took on one of China’s most powerful men three weeks ago, accusing him of sexual assault, she found her voice silenced, erased from China’s heavily controlled cyberspace and smiling in awkward public appearances most likely intended to defuse what has become an international scandal.At 35, Ms. Peng is one of her country’s most recognized athletes, a doubles champion at Wimbledon and the French Open whom state media once hailed as “our Chinese princess.” If anyone were able to break through the country’s icy resistance to #MeToo allegations, it would seem to be someone like her.Instead, she has become another example of China’s iron grip over politics, society and sports, and an object lesson in the struggle facing women who dare to challenge Beijing — even those who have had a history of winning praise from the state.Her allegation was the first to penetrate the highest pinnacles of power in China, the Politburo Standing Committee. It was an act of courage and perhaps desperation that has resulted in an aggressive response, smothering her inside China.“Peng has always been a strong-minded person,” said Terry Rhoads, the managing director of Zou Sports, the talent management agency in Shanghai that represented her for a decade until 2014. “I witnessed up close her struggles and battles with people bossing her or having authority over her tennis.”A screen grab obtained from social media showing Ms. Peng at the opening ceremony of the Fila Kids Junior Tennis Challenger Final in Beijing on Sunday.Via Twitter @Qingqingparis/via ReutersOver the weekend, the state’s propaganda apparatus produced a series of photographs and videos purporting to show Ms. Peng carrying on as if nothing had happened.The only thing missing from the recent flurry of coverage was her own voice, one once strong enough to force the authorities to bend to her steely determination to control her own destiny.The images were in striking contrast to her own description three weeks ago of being like “a moth darting into the flames” in order to “tell the truth” about her relationship with — and mistreatment by — Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier, who she said assaulted her around three years ago.“The authorities have never liked feminists or #MeToo,” said Lijia Zhang, the author of “Lotus,” a novel depicting prostitution in China. Those who “dared to speak out,” she added, “have been silenced.”A #WhereisPengShuai campaign has taken root less than three months before Beijing is to host the Winter Olympics, an event that the country’s leadership has indicated would validate Communist Party rule. The handling of Ms. Peng’s accusation has only inflamed criticism, giving ammunition to those who have called for a boycott.“These photos and videos can only prove that Peng Shuai is alive, but nothing else. They cannot prove that Peng Shuai is free,” Teng Biao, one of China’s most prominent civil rights lawyers, said in a telephone call from his home in New Jersey.Ms. Peng spoke on Sunday with officials at the International Olympic Committee, which passed on a message from her saying “that she is safe and well” but that she “would like to have her privacy respected at this time.” That didn’t satisfy Steve Simon, the chief executive of the WTA Tour, which has been pressing for answers about Ms. Peng’s ability to move and speak freely. “It was good to see Peng Shuai in recent videos, but they don’t alleviate or address the WTA’s concern about her well-being and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion,” the group said in a statement.Women in China have long struggled to have agency in the country, a situation that many activists say has worsened since Mr. Xi came to power nearly a decade ago.Ms. Peng returning a shot against Carla Suárez Navarro of Spain during their first-round tennis match at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.Toby Melville/ReutersMs. Peng carved out a professional tennis career that meant taking on officials who tried to dictate whom she could train with, what tournaments she could play in and how much money she could keep for herself.When it comes to an accusation of sexual misconduct, however, the state has proved to be more resistant to change. The moment Ms. Peng posted her #MeToo allegations, Mr. Teng said, “she was barely protected by the law, and it was all politics that determined her fate.”Born in the city of Xiangtan, where her father was a police officer, Ms. Peng was introduced to tennis by an uncle when she was 8. At 12, she required surgery to correct a congenital heart defect that left people doubting she could continue to play.“They thought I would leave tennis,” she said in an Adidas ad campaign in 2008, “but surprisingly, I didn’t give up. Maybe because I love tennis so much I decided to have this operation.”After the surgery, she was sent to Tianjin, where she was drafted into China’s Soviet-style sports machine, designed to churn out international competitors, especially in the Olympics. She ultimately competed in the Olympics three times, beginning with Beijing in 2008.By the mid-2000s, Ms. Peng decided she was no longer willing to give more than half of her earnings away to the state. She and three other Chinese players decided to break out of the state’s control, effectively by threatening to stop playing.When she made the decision in 2005 to “fly solo,” as it was called in Chinese, a sports official criticized her for being too selfish, abandoning her “mother country.”Ms. Peng in a match against Alicia Molik of Australia, at the Medibank Private International in January 2005 at Sydney Olympic Park.Chris McGrath/Getty Images“She thought she was Sharapova?” the official said, referring to the Russian player who was for a time the No. 1 player in women’s tennis.Even as she took on decades of sports tradition, Ms. Peng knew how to play to China’s desire to showcase its top athletes. The head coach of the Tianjin Tennis Team, where she had trained, took credit for having “created the foundation and conditions for Peng Shuai to fly solo.”Ms. Peng later won the doubles championship at Wimbledon in 2013 and again at the French Open in 2014. That year, playing singles, she reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open, peaking as the No. 14 player in the world. With her successes mounting, officials lauded her and other tennis champions, like Li Na, the “golden flowers” of Chinese sports.“She was very engaging, always smiling and giggling, but also a great competitor,” Patrick McEnroe, the former player and commentator, said in an interview.She could also be calculating. In 2018, she was suspended from the Women’s Tennis Association for offering a financial incentive to Alison Van Uytvanck to withdraw as her doubles partner after the deadline for signing up for Wimbledon in 2017. Ms. Van Uytvanck criticized her publicly then, but she has joined other tennis stars in calling for an investigation into the recent allegations.A number of women in media, at universities and in the private sector in China have come forward with accusations of sexual assault and harassment — only to face legal action themselves and harassment online.According to the message Ms. Peng posted on Nov. 2 on her verified account on Weibo, the ubiquitous social media platform in China, she first met Mr. Zhang when she was a rising star and he was a party secretary in Tianjin, the provincial-level port city near Beijing. That would have been some time before 2012. She moved to Tianjin to start professional training in 1999 when she was 13.Ms. Peng’s post described a conflicted relationship that alternated between playing chess and tennis with Mr. Zhang, or feeling ignored by him and ridiculed by his wife. She did not explicitly acknowledge the disparity in age and power between the two. “Romantic attraction is such a complicated thing,” she wrote.Mr. Zhang was elevated to the Politburo Standing Committee in 2012, becoming a vice premier under Mr. Xi. He stepped down after one five-year term on the committee. Ms. Peng said it was around that time that Mr. Zhang coerced her into having sex. “I was crying the entire time,” she wrote.Zhang Gaoli speaking during the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing in 2017.Lintao Zhang/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images Her post was censored within 34 minutes, but three weeks later, it continues to reverberate. Those who knew her from her professional tennis career continue to wonder if she is safe. Some human rights activists contend that she is being forced to take part in staged situations intended to deflect questions about what happened.In the flurry of coverage over the weekend, most of which did not appear in Chinese state media, Ms. Peng was shown posing with stuffed animals, dining in a Beijing restaurant, appearing at a youth tournament and dialing in to a video call with the head of the International Olympic Committee.“Can any girl fake such a sunny smile under pressure?” Hu Xijin, the editor of The Global Times, a state media tabloid, wrote on Twitter, which is banned in China.Ms. Peng no longer appears in control of her own messaging.“I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more interviews with Peng Shuai,” Maria Repnikova, an assistant professor of political communication at Georgia State University and author of a new book, “Chinese Soft Power,” “but I doubt that she will raise any sensitive matters.”Reporting and research were contributed by More
The Chinese tennis star held a 30-minute video call with the leader of the International Olympic Committee, but the head of women’s professional tennis remained unable to reach her.Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis star who disappeared from public life for more than a week after she accused a former top government official of sexual assault, appeared in a live video call with the president of the International Olympic Committee and other officials with the organization on Sunday. The video assuaged some concerns about Peng’s immediate well-being. However, it fell short of what tennis officials, who still have not been able to establish independent contact with Peng, have been demanding since the Chinese government began attempting to censor any discussion of Peng’s allegations and her largely disappearing after posting them on one of China’s main social media outlets earlier this month, creating a standoff between two of the world’s leading sports organizations.Peng, 35, a three-time Olympian, had been missing since Nov. 2, when she used social media to accuse Zhang Gaoli, 75, a former vice premier of China, of sexually assaulting her at his home three years ago. She also described having had an on-and-off consensual relationship with Zhang.According to the I.O.C., Peng, held a 30-minute call with Thomas Bach, the organization’s president and a former Olympic fencer. In a statement posted on the I.O.C. website that accompanied a photo of the call, the organization said Peng stated “that she is safe and well, living at her home in Beijing, but would like to have her privacy respected at this time. That is why she prefers to spend her time with friends and family right now.”A friend of Peng’s assisted her with her English, according to an Olympic official, though Peng became proficient in the language over her 15-year professional tennis career.Emma Terho, who chairs the I.O.C. athletes’ commission and participated in the call, said she was relieved to see that Peng appeared to be safe. “She appeared to be relaxed,” Terho said. “I offered her our support and to stay in touch at any time of her convenience, which she obviously appreciated.” Peng Shuai in action during a first-round match at the Australian Open in 2020.Kim Hong-Ji/ReutersPeng’s disappearance following the allegations placed the I.O.C. under a microscope. Beijing is the host of the Olympic Winter Games in February, and officials and top sports figures had demanded the I.O.C. pressure the Chinese government to guarantee her safety and her ability to speak openly about the sexual assault allegation. The I.O.C. is facing substantial criticism for holding the Games in Beijing amid China’s crackdowns on dissent from prominent cultural and business figures like Jack Ma, founder of the internet firm Alibaba, its suppression of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and Tibet, and its treatment of Muslim minorities — deemed genocide by the United States and lawmakers in several nations.According to the I.O.C. statement, Bach invited Peng to a dinner when he arrives for the Games in Beijing, which would include Terho and Li Lingwei, an I.O.C. member and Chinese Tennis Federation official who also participated in the call.However, the seemingly friendly banter and dinner plans did little to satisfy Steve Simon, the chief executive of the WTA Tour. Simon has been trying to establish independent contact with Peng for more than a week to no avail and has grown increasingly strident in his criticism of the Chinese government as its government-controlled media entities released a series of photos and videos of her. In a statement on Sunday following the release of the I.O.C. video, a spokesperson for the WTA and Simon said, “It was good to see Peng Shuai in recent videos, but they don’t alleviate or address the WTA’s concern about her well-being and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion. This video does not change our call for a full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship, into her allegation of sexual assault, which is the issue that gave rise to our initial concern.”While several top sports officials have spoken out on Peng’s behalf, and asked the “Where is Peng Shuai” question that has gone viral in recent weeks, only Simon has made it clear that his organization will not hold any tournaments in China if the government does not grant her permission to move freely, speak openly about the assault allegations and investigate the incident. The move could cost women’s pro tennis hundreds of millions of dollars of investment from China, but in a letter to China’s ambassador to the U.S. on Friday, Simon reiterated the organization’s position. He said the WTA would not be able to continue to hold its nine events in China, including the prestigious Tour Finals, scheduled to take place in Shenzhen through 2028, if he could not guarantee the safety of tennis players in the country. The men’s pro tour has also demanded assurance of Peng’s safety but has not threatened to stop holding tournaments in China, which has widely been viewed as a major growth market for all sports but presents significant moral hazards for anyone conducting business with an increasingly authoritarian government. “Money trumps everything,” said Martina Navratilova, the former champion and tennis commentator, who defected to the United States when she was 18 years old to escape communist rule in Czechoslovakia. Navratilova is one of several leading tennis figures and government leaders to speak out on Peng’s behalf. As the chorus grew louder last week, Chinese media outlets began releasing snippets of Peng to try to convince a skeptical public that she was OK.A screen grab from a video posted on a state media Twitter account supposedly shows Peng Shuai signing tennis balls at a kids’ tennis tournament in Beijing on Sunday.Via Twitter @Qingqingparis/Via ReutersVideo clips of her at a Beijing restaurant were posted on the Twitter account of Hu Xijin, the chief editor of The Global Times, an influential Communist Party newspaper, who described them as showing Peng having dinner with her coach and friends on Saturday.Hu posted another video hours later, describing it as the opening ceremony of a teen tennis match final in Beijing on Sunday to which Peng “showed up,” and then yet another of her signing tennis balls and posing for photos with children.On Friday, a journalist for another Chinese media entity released pictures said to be of Peng in what appeared to be a bedroom, surrounded by stuffed animals. In those photos, Peng appeared younger than she did in more recent images of her and there was nothing to verify when they had been taken.Those posts followed China’s state-owned broadcaster releasing a message that was supposedly from her.“Hello everyone this is Peng Shuai,” it read. It called the accusation of sexual assault, which was made just weeks ago, untrue. “I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe,” the message said. “I’ve been resting at home and everything is fine. Thank you again for caring about me.”The message was widely believed to have been written by someone other than Peng. More