A FOUR-YEAR absence of elite women’s tennis in China is set to end with the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) holding seven tournaments in the next six weeks as part of the tour’s Asian swing.
After tournaments in China were cancelled due to COVID-19 travel restrictions in 2020, the WTA suspended events in the country in December 2021 over concerns about Grand Slam doubles champion Peng Shuai’s well-being after the Chinese player made sexual assault accusations against a high-ranking Chinese government official.
Peng dropped out of sight after the accusation against former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli briefly appeared on her verified Weibo social media before being swiftly removed. Screen shots of the post were shared across the internet, drawing widespread concern about Peng’s safety from politicians, fellow tennis stars and the WTA.
The WTA said at the time it would not return until someone from the tour could meet with Peng and her allegations were properly investigated.
Despite neither of those two conditions being met, the WTA announced in April that it intended to return to China this season after assurances were received from those close to Peng that she was safe and well, and that “more progress could be made” by returning to China than by staying away.
In doubles, Peng won major championships at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014. Her best Grand Slam showing in singles was a run to the semifinals at the US Open in 2014. She won 23 WTA titles in doubles and two in singles and represented China at three Summer Olympics.
WTA Chairman and chief executive Steve Simon said in April that the organization’s decision to return to China included discussion and feedback with players and tournament officials.
“We’ve got players from over 80 countries, so there’s no shortage of different views of the world and positions on issues and topics we have,” he said. “Through reach-out to us, as well as our reaching out to athletes to find out their positions, the great majority of the athletes were supportive and wanted to see a return back to the region and felt it was time to go back. … There’s certainly some that didn’t agree but the great majority did.”
One of those who don’t agree is tour veteran Alize Cornet, who was one of the first players to back Peng under the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai, and has said on her social media accounts she will not be heading to China this year.
“Staying true to my convictions and careful about my health, I decided I will not be playing in China this year,” Cornet said.
In the past, about 10 women’s tournaments were held each year in China, generating millions of dollars in revenue for the WTA and offering some of the highest prize money purses on the tour for the players.
This season there will be seven events held across China, starting with WTA 250 tournaments at the Guangzhou Open from September 18 followed by the Ningbo Open from September 25.
The China Open, a WTA and ATP 1000 event, follows from September 28 and will see 2023 US Open finalist, Aryna Sabalenka, debut as the new world No. 1. The woman she replaced at No. 1 after 75 weeks, Iga Swiatek will also be competing at the event, alongside newly-crowned US Open champion Coco Gauff, Elena Rybakina, Ons Jabeur and Jessica Pegula.
The 2019 champion, Naomi Osaka will be absent with the former No. 1-ranked player currently on maternity leave after the birth of her first child in July. The four-time Grand Slam winner has said she intends to return to action at the Australian Open in January, where she won in 2019 and 2021.
In October, the tour moves to the WTA 500 Zhengzhou Open and WTA 250 Hong Kong with both tournaments starting October 9. The WTA 250 Jiangxi Open is the following week before the Asia swing concludes at the season-ending WTA Elite Trophy tournament in Zhuhai from October 24, which Sabalenka won when it was last played in 2019.
Image credits: AP