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Women’s tennis normally takes on China with danger to pull its company

Very little in Steve Simon’s job as a tennis promoter geared up him for the crisis he is out of the blue faced with this month: a player’s disappearance that has compelled his group, the Women’s Tennis Association, into a standoff with the Chinese governing administration.

But the string of occasions due to the fact a publish on the social media account of a Chinese participant named Peng Shuai accused a person the country’s most senior retired officers of sexual assault has placed Simon, the head of the WTA, in an sudden purpose. He is the rare sporting activities government keen to quit one of the most worthwhile overseas marketplaces on the earth. 

Simon has accused China of lying to him about Peng’s protection amid mounting international outrage, and he has indicated that he understands the stakes.

“We’re at a crossroads with our romance, naturally, with China,” Simon stated in a televised job interview with CNN on Thursday. “We’re unquestionably willing to pull our business, and offer with all the troubles that appear with it, for the reason that this is larger than the enterprise.”

FILE – Peng Shuai of China celebrates following profitable the women’s singles match from Venus Williams of the United States in the China Open tennis tournament at the Nationwide Tennis Stadium in Beijing, Monday, Oct. 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Andy Wong, File)

Peng has been unheard from because a Nov. 2 write-up on her verified account on the Twitter-like Weibo platform that accused previous Chinese Vice Leading Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault. The article disappeared following approximately 20 minutes, and queries for her title on preferred Chinese social-media platforms have been blocked at any time since. Zhang has not resolved the allegation publicly and can not be attained.

Previously this week, Simon obtained an e mail declaring that the accusation was untrue and that Peng was safe and sound. China’s state broadcaster, which posted a screenshot of the email, reported Peng had written it. Simon told CNN that he doubted that and now thinks it was not created by her, or that she may have been coerced into writing it. He experienced earlier been given assurances from the Chinese Tennis Association that she wasn’t in danger, but reported he could not corroborate them.

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China’s International Ministry did not right away reply to a ask for for comment on Simon’s remarks.

Peng, 35, is a two-time winner of Grand Slam doubles titles and rose as high as No. 14 in the planet singles rankings in 2014. Chinese state media in all those days referred to as her a single of the country’s “golden bouquets” in tennis.

FILE Photo: A file photo of China’s Peng Shuai serving through a match at the Australian Open on January 15, 2019. REUTERS/Edgar Su/File Picture/File Image

This 7 days, her name turned the basis of the hashtag #whereispengshuai, which is staying made use of by athletes all over the planet. The most notable concept still came from Serena Williams on Thursday afternoon, while she didn’t make any immediate point out of China.

“I am devastated and shocked to listen to about the information of my peer, Peng Shuai,” she wrote on Twitter. “I hope she is protected and observed as shortly as achievable. This have to be investigated and we should not keep silent.”


Other athletics corporations have run afoul of China in the latest yrs, but none has explained it was prepared to abandon the industry completely. In 2019, the Countrywide Basketball Affiliation shed hundreds of thousands and thousands of bucks, according to the league’s commissioner, pursuing a firestorm brought about by a tweet by then-Houston Rockets basic supervisor Daryl Morey in help of anti-govt protests in Hong Kong. Online games ended up pulled from streaming providers and sponsors fled and the league has moved cautiously in China at any time considering that.

The English Leading League also saw a handful of Arsenal online games pulled from the Chinese web and television after midfielder Mesut Özil criticized China around its remedy of ethnic minority Muslims. Coverage quietly resumed, but Özil is no for a longer time an Arsenal participant.

FILE – WTA Main Government Officer Steve Simon smiles during a retirement ceremony for Martina Hingis in Singapore on Oct. 29, 2017. (AP Image/Yong Teck Lim, File)

With revenues that hover close to $100 million a calendar year, in accordance to money filings, the Florida-primarily based WTA does not rival possibly organization—the NBA or the Premier League—for dimension or wealth. And yet, women’s tennis could develop into the initial to sever ties fully, inspite of China’s turning out to be one of the WTA’s favorite and most financially rewarding locations.

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In 2018, Simon assisted the tour sign a 10-calendar year deal that was thanks to put the WTA Finals in China each and every year till 2028 and double the prize purse to $14 million, producing it one particular of the rare women’s sporting gatherings to spend gamers far more than its counterpart on the men’s side. And until eventually Covid postponements wreaked havoc on the timetable, there were being 11 Chinese tournaments on the calendar—although the tour didn’t go to any of them this 12 months owing to border closures. In 2019, the tour’s most modern total season, the WTA went  to China 9 periods, making up approximately one-seventh of all tour-amount events.


The corporation also relies on assistance from Chinese sponsors, counting the Beijing-dependent streaming support iQiyi as a person of its 4 world wide partners, together with the likes of Porsche and the German software company SAP.

Nevertheless Simon and the tour’s players have been unequivocal in their assist of Peng.

FILE – Then Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli is observed during a assembly at the Excellent Hall of the Persons in Beijing, China, Wednesday, March 16, 2016. Chinese authorities have squelched just about all on the internet dialogue of sexual assault accusations appar

“The circuit survived this year without the need of a swing via Asia, even if there’s a large amount of funds there,” the veteran player Alizé Cornet reported in an interview with the French sporting activities everyday L’Equipe. “That could reassure us that we could endure without the need of the Chinese portion of the tour. If we experienced to break up from it at some point since it doesn’t match our values, then we nevertheless have to do it, even if we reduce one thing financially.”

The preference going through the WTA now is a stark one, given that Simon’s whole occupation was geared to encouraging women’s tennis make cash. He joined the Indian Wells match in California’s Coachella Valley in 1989 to market tickets and ads. And following he grew to become event director in 2004, he was credited with escalating its prize revenue and reputation enough to make it the most prestigious women’s tennis event outside of the four majors. Indian Wells was sold to billionaire Larry Ellison in 2009 and is now known as the BNP Paribas Open.

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Simon’s best minute of highwire diplomacy for the duration of his 11 a long time in charge arrived in 2015, when he negotiated Serena Williams’s first overall look at Indian Wells following a 14-year boycott because of to racist taunts she had listened to from crowds there early in her job.

“When I returned to Indian Wells this yr,” Williams reported at the time, “Steve could not have been additional helpful, skilled and supportive. I know how substantially he cares about the opinions of the gamers. He’s a superior listener and he has our most effective interests in mind.”

In working with China, Simon has kept his aim on Peng’s effectively-being and prevented straying into politics. But the political conversation has arrive to him, as China hawks in the U.S. Congress stepped up their attacks on Beijing’s internet hosting of the 2022 Winter Olympic Online games in February. Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, on Thursday referred to as for a overall U.S. boycott of the Game titles, citing amongst his causes his fears that the U.S. could not maintain them risk-free from Chinese surveillance “or even hostage-getting.”

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Cotton’s aides later on issued a statement tying the call to Peng Shuai. “If the Chinese Communists vanish their possess athletes, just consider how substantially fewer they’ll treatment for the basic safety of ours,” his assertion claimed.

Aides to Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, mentioned she was getting ready to ship a letter about Peng’s circumstance to the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee. They said the letter will point out that, in mild of Peng’s disappearance, it is impossible to sense self-confident that athletes will be safeguarded if they go to the Olympics in Beijing.

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