10. Peng Shuai

Not as much a tennis story as a news story about a tennis player, the whereabouts of Peng Shuai became a subject of global interest in the final weeks of the season—and its implications look to be getting even larger.

The sequence of events began on the 2nd of November, when Peng, 35, appeared to have posted a lengthy account on Chinese social media, saying she was coerced into a sexual relationship with a high-ranking former member of the ruling CCP, 75, starting three years ago. It included an incident with guards positioned in front of the room. Even if "inviting self-destruction, I will tell the truth about you," said the post.

It took around 20 minutes for China's censors to scrub the posting off the network, and then suspend her account and remove all references to her name—or for a while, even "tennis player"— from the Chinese internet. There are screenshots still floating around elsewhere.

And so Peng's story would instead turn into the Peng story, with concern growing steadily when days went by and there was no word from the player once ranked No. 1 in doubles and in the Top 15 in singles.



The online rumbling got louder when French player Alize Cornet joined in and tweeted using the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai, which took off and drew broader attention to the events. A statement the next day from WTA CEO Steve Simon declared that the "allegations must be investigated," and Simon told the New York Times that he was assured Peng was "safe" and not under "physical threat" but had not established contact.

Then the sport's top names began to speak up, with public statements by Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams, Chris Evert and others, along with press conference comments by Novak Djokovic. The lack of silence sparked significant media attention, and perhaps prompted the clumsily-presented counter-response that followed.


A letter purportedly from Peng to Simon was published by Chinese government-affiliated media, saying she was "resting at home" and denying her previous allegations. Some videos of Peng dining with her coach and appearing at a juniors event were also released, though it was not obvious when they had been recorded.

These were received with howls of derision online, with Simon stating that the letter only increased "my concern as to her safety."

[The #WhereIsPengShuai hashtag became #freePengShuai, indicating the efforts had not been convincing—quite the opposite.]

Around then, the White House, the UN and the EU all also publicly called for Peng's safety to be verified. This had obviously now gone beyond tennis or even sports.


That might have influenced what happened next—a video conference between IOC President Thomas Bach, other IOC officials and Peng, which was followed by the release of a photo of Peng smiling on screen and a statement that said she appeared to be "safe" and wanted privacy.

It backfired.

The International Olympic Commission had been under pressure to intervene given Peng's previous participation in three Olympics, especially with the next Games scheduled for Beijing just months away. But the video call did not go down much betterhuman rights groups criticized the IOC for boosting China's propaganda, though IOC member Dick Pound did note that the commission so far had been the only one to succeed in organizing contact with Peng.

The WTA said the call did not "alleviate" its concerns, and Simon repeated prior warnings that the tour and China were "at a crossroads." But little more was forthcoming.


As a month approached since Peng's fateful posting, the WTA announced that it was withdrawing all its events from China. It could not have been a light decision—the ten-plus WTA tournaments in China award around $ 30 million in prize money, and it is quite likely the country provided more than a third of the WTA Tour's own earnings. While those events had been suspended during the pandemic—they still had a lot of weight.


The move thrusted the story back into the spotlight, with Simon receiving international praise for a tougher stance than other sporting organizations have previously taken. The IOC then announced it had a second call with Peng, reiterating that she appeared "safe" and Bach would be meeting with her in China prior to the Beijing Olympics. The ITF, whose president, David Haggerty, is an IOC member, also told players more quietly there would be no ITF events in China next season.

And despite a lull, the story has kept rumbling in the background.

The ATP Tour, which issued statements backing the WTA, has been under pressure to take a more firm stand. The IOC is receiving repeated questions about Peng in the run-up to the Games. Various governments, led by the United States, announced that they would not send their officials to the Olympics as a more general protest of China's violations of human rights. Some tournaments in France have invited Peng to give the trophy to the winner or placed #WhereIsPengShuai on their court signage.

The ongoing interest seems to have had an effect, because this week came the most robust glimpse into Peng's circumstances—a video from Singaporean newspaper Lianhe Zaobao interviewing her in Shanghai. In the video, a blinking and cautious Peng mentioned her original internet posting, though only to deny that she had ever alleged being sexually assaulted and that the posting had been twisted. She also said she had no current plans to go abroad, and "I've been very free all along."


Still, it was hardly convincing, with the WTA again having to state that it did not alleviate their concerns. Instead of answers, there were simply more questions.

And there it stands, for now, with the way forward uncertain and difficult. But for the tennis community, which so easily traverses borders, the detainment has unquestionably hit home and still reverberates. The sport played across the world is navigating deep divisions within it.