Where is Peng Shuai? At the Australian Open, Tennis Fans Are (Still) Seeking Answers


On Friday, a tense match was underway between China’s Wang Qiang and American Madison Keys at Melbourne Park, with Keys eventually emerging victorious to move on to the quarterfinals of this year’s Australian Open. But far away from the court, at the entrance gate, another showdown was taking place—this one, between security guards and a group of fans who were denied entry unless they covered up their T-shirts reading “Free Peng Shuai,” which they intended to wear while flying a confiscated banner at the match in the hopes of getting the attention of Chinese spectators at home.

The slogan has become a rallying cry for those protesting the mysterious circumstances of the Chinese tennis player Peng’s disappearance from the public eye last November, after she accused the retired vice premier Zhang Gaoli of sexually assaulting her at his home three years ago on the social media platform Weibo. Peng, who is a two-time Grand Slam doubles champion and one of the country’s foremost tennis stars, had her post swiftly deleted and all mention of the scandal scrubbed from the Chinese internet. Immediately afterwards, she disappeared from public view for weeks, leading many to assume state involvement with her silencing. When the Women’s Tennis Association called for the Chinese authorities to launch an investigation into the accusation in mid-November, an email was published withdrawing the claims, allegedly written by Peng herself, and a few days later, she was connected with Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, for a video call to soothe concerns that she was being held captive or under duress.

Despite this, many remained unconvinced that Peng’s accusations had been withdrawn on her own terms, noting parallels between Peng’s treatment and China’s broader playbook for quashing dissent. On December 1, the Women’s Tennis Association announced they would be withdrawing their tour from China—a decision that would likely cause the sport to lose many millions of dollars, given the lucrative prize money offered by Chinese tournaments. “While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe, and not subject to censorship, coercion, and intimidation,” the chief executive of the Women’s Tennis Association Steve Simon said at the time. A number of the sport’s most esteemed athletes also voiced their solidarity with Peng, including Roger Federer, Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal, and Billie Jean King.



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