Professional women’s tennis tournaments will resume in China in September after a 16-month boycott over concerns for the safety of Chinese player Peng Shuai, the WTA announced on Thursday.

The former doubles world number one has not been seen outside China since first making, and then withdrawing, accusations of sexual assault against a high-ranking official.

Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai plays a backhand. File photo: JC/Flickr.
Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai plays a backhand. File photo: JC/Flickr.

“In 2021, when Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai bravely came forward, the WTA took a stance and suspended its operation of events in China out of concern for her safety and the safety of our players and staff,” it said.

But the WTA, the body that runs women’s professional tennis, admitted its “principled stand… a powerful message to the world” had not been able “to bring about change”.

“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,” the WTA said.

“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.

“For these reasons, the WTA is lifting its suspension of the operation of tournaments in the People’s Republic of China and will resume tournaments in China this September.”

A match at the inaugural Shenzhen Open, part of the 2013 WTA Tour. Photo: Ann-Lena Friedsam/Flickr.
A match at the inaugural Shenzhen Open, part of the 2013 WTA Tour. Photo: Ann-Lena Friedsam/Flickr.

The WTA added: “We have not been able to achieve everything we set out for, but we have been in touch with people close to Peng and are assured she is living safely with her family in Beijing.

“We also have received assurances that WTA players and staff operating in China will be safe and protected while in the country. The WTA takes this commitment seriously and will hold all parties responsible.”

‘Resolution required’

The WTA said in January that it had called for a “formal investigation into the allegations by the appropriate authorities and an opportunity for the WTA to meet with Peng – privately – to discuss her situation”.

“While we have always indicated we are hopeful we will be in a position to again operate WTA events in the region, we will not compromise our founding principles in order to do so,” it said at the time.

“A return to the region will require a resolution to the Peng Shuai situation in which Peng took a bold step in publicly coming forth with the accusation that she was sexually assaulted by a senior Chinese government leader.”

Peng Shuai tennis player
Peng Shuai. Photo: Wikicommons

Peng, a former world doubles number one, had alleged in a social media post that a former Chinese vice-premier had forced her into sex during a relationship of several years, but has since twice denied she accused anyone of sexual assault and described the situation as a “huge misunderstanding”.

China has represented a large share of the WTA’s revenue in the past decade and the organisation has suffered deep financial losses since Chinese tournaments were initially cancelled due to Covid-19 in 2020.

The WTA’s decision to return means the closing stages of the women’s tennis season will again be focused on China.

The season-ending WTA Finals will resume its 10-year deal with the city of Shenzhen.

French player Caroline Garcia, the world number five, said she understood why the WTA was making a “very important” return to China.

“The ATP and the ITF (International Tennis Federation) were already going back, and women’s tennis is following,” she told the BBC.

“In the past we have had some huge tournaments over there and I think it is an important swing for us in our calendar and I’m looking forward to it.”

Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. Photo Sports Federation & Olympic Committee of Hong Kong, China (1) (Copy)
IOC President Thomas Bach during the Opening Ceremony of Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. Photo: IOC.

Sport in China has been deeply disrupted by the Covid pandemic.

The ATP men’s tennis circuit suspended its tournaments there but, with the country now emerging from stringent anti-Covid measures, four men’s tournaments are scheduled to be held in China this year, in Chengdu, Zhuhai, Beijing and Shanghai from September to October.

The Winter Olympics went ahead in Beijing in 2022 but were held in an extraordinary ‘closed loop’ with competitors, coaches, staff and members of the media cut off from the Chinese population.

Peng briefly appeared as a spectator at those Olympics.

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