Where is Peng Shuai? Tennis fans are (still) looking for answers at the Australian Open

On Friday, a close match was underway between China’s Wang Qiang and American Madison Keys at Melbourne Park, with Keys ultimately coming out victorious to advance to the quarter-finals of this year’s Australian Open. But far away from the court, at the entrance gate, another confrontation took place – this one, between guards and a group of fans who were refused entry unless they covered their T-shirts with the text “Free Peng Shuai”, which they intended to to wear while flying with a confiscated banner during the match in hopes of attracting the attention of Chinese spectators at home.

The slogan has become a rallying cry for those protesting the mysterious circumstances of Chinese tennis player Peng’s disappearance from the public eye last November after she accused retired Deputy Prime Minister Zhang Gaoli of sexually assaulting her three years ago in his hometown. home on the social media platform Weibo. Peng, who is a two-time Grand Slam doubles champion and one of the country’s top tennis stars, quickly had her post deleted and all mentions of the scandal were deleted from the Chinese internet. Immediately after, she disappeared from view for weeks, leading many to assume state involvement in silencing her. When the Women’s Tennis Association called on Chinese authorities in mid-November to launch an investigation into the allegation, an email retracting the allegations was published, allegedly written by Peng herself, and a few days later she was linked. brought in with Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, for a video call to allay concerns that she was being held captive or forcibly detained.

Despite this, many were not convinced that Peng’s charges had been dropped on her own terms, noting parallels between Peng’s treatment and China’s broader playbook for crushing dissent. On December 1, the Women’s Tennis Association announced they would be withdrawing their tour from China — a decision likely to net the sport multimillion-dollar dollars given the lucrative prize money offered by Chinese tournaments. “Although we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation,” said Women’s Tennis Association director Steve Simon at the time. Some of the sport’s most esteemed athletes also expressed their solidarity with Peng, including Roger Federer, Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal and Billie Jean King.

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