Tennis-Navratilova says Tennis Australia ‘capitulates’ to China over Peng

MELBOURNE, January 24 (Reuters)Martina Navratilova said the organizers of the Australian Open had acted “cowardly” by preventing fans from wearing shirts showing support for Chinese doubles player Peng Shuai during the Grand Slam event.

After video emerged of security officials and police on Saturday instructing fans to take off shirts with the slogan, “Where’s Peng Shuai?” on them, Tennis Australia (TA) defended its position by saying that the tournament does not allow for political statements.

“Under our ticket terms, we do not allow clothing, banners or signs that are commercial or political,” TA said in a statement.

TA’s position stunned 18-time Grand Slam winner Navratilova, who said they were “capitulating” to China and putting sponsorship funds above human rights issues.

“I think it’s really, really cowardly,” she told the US Tennis Channel.

“I think they are wrong. This is not a political statement, this is a human rights statement.

“(Tennis Australia is) just really capitating on this issue… really letting the Chinese dictate what they do at their own Slam. I just think it’s very weak.”

TA did not respond to Reuters’ request for comment on the comments.

Peng’s well-being became a concern among the global tennis community in November when she appeared to allege that a former Chinese Deputy Prime Minister, Zhang Gaoli, had sexually assaulted her in the past. After that post, she was absent from the public for nearly three weeks.

Last month, she said she had never accused anyone of sexually abusing her, and that a social media post she posted had been misunderstood.

The WTA has suspended tournaments in China over concerns about Peng’s safety.

French player Nicolas Mahut also responded to TA’s response, tweeting: “What a lack of courage! What if you didn’t have Chinese sponsors.”

Baijiu Distillery Luzhu Laojiao is a sponsor of the event.

On Monday, Peng supporters in Australia said they were planning 1,000 “Where’s Peng Shuai?” to share. T-shirts in Melbourne Park this week after raising more than $10,000 on a GoFundMe page.

“We can see how many contestants they can stop,” activist Max Mok told Australia’s ABC Radio.

(Reporting by Andrew Both; additional reporting by Sudipto Ganguly; editing by Peter Rutherford)

((andrew.both@thomsonreuters.com; 1 919 6336697; Reuters Messaging: andrew.both.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))

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