By Jessie Yeung, CNN
Hong Kong (CNN) — The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) kicked off its first tournament in China in more than three years Monday, ending its boycott over the uncertain fate of tennis star Peng Shuai.
One of China’s most recognizable sports figures, Peng was feared to be held incommunicado by the Chinese government in 2021 after she accused retired Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of coercing her into sex during a years-long on-off relationship.
Following the accusation, Peng disappeared from public view for more than two weeks, prompting the world’s biggest tennis stars and the United Nations to demand answers as to her whereabouts – as well as a full investigation into her allegations against Zhang.
Peng, a three-time Olympian and grand slam doubles champion, later denied having made the sexual assault claim. But many international observers and sports leaders continued to raise questions about Peng’s safety and her ability to speak freely given the Communist Party’s well-documented record of quashing dissent.
Soon after the controversy exploded in late 2021, the WTA announced it would suspend all tournaments in China, with the chairman and CEO Steve Simon saying he had “serious doubts that (Peng) is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation.”
At the time, Simon said the WTA would not return until there was a “full and transparent investigation” with no censorship, and until there was sufficient evidence to allay concerns about Peng’s safety and whereabouts.
But despite the lack of such an investigation, Simon announced this April that the suspension, which he called a “principled stand,” would come to an end by September.
The WTA had already pulled its tournaments in China in 2020 due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.
“After 16 months of suspended tennis competition in China and sustained efforts at achieving our original requests, the situation has shown no sign of changing,” he said at the time. “We have concluded we will never fully secure those goals, and it will be our players and tournaments who ultimately will be paying an extraordinary price for their sacrifices.”
He added that the WTA has been in contact with people close to Peng, and “are assured she is living safely with her family in Beijing.” Peng “cannot be forgotten through this process,” he said in the statement.
The Guangzhou Open kicked off Monday, lasting through Saturday in southern China, with another tournament scheduled later in September in the Chinese city of Ningbo, and finally the China Open in Beijing from September 30 to October 8.
Peng last appeared in February 2022 when she met Olympic officials at the Beijing Winter Games and then was interviewed by independent French sport news site L’Equipe.
The WTA’s decision to resume play has been criticized by some human rights groups and athletes. The international group Human Rights Watch called the move a “huge disappointment,” urging the world to “keep Peng Shuai’s case in the public eye.”
And French player Alize Cornet, one of the first players to support Peng with the widely-circulated hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai, will not be heading to China to compete – though did not directly reference Peng, Reuters reported, citing the French newspaper Le Parisien.
Cornet had posted an Instagram story saying her season would only resume later in October, the newspaper said.
“Staying true to my convictions and careful about my health, I decided I will not be playing in China this year,” Cornet was quoted as saying, Reuters reported.
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