Tennis great Martina Navratilova has condemned as "pathetic" the Australian Open's decision to stop fans wearing 'Where is Peng Shuai?' T-shirts, accusing Tennis Australia (TA) of "capitulating" to China.
Late last week spectators at Melbourne Park were asked to remove their T-shirts and security confiscated a banner emblazoned with the same words, on the grounds that TA prohibits “clothing, banners or signs that are commercial or political”.
The governing body stood by its rationale on Sunday and stated Peng’s “safety is our primary concern” and continued to work with the Women’s Tennis Association to “seek more clarity” on the Chinese star’s wellbeing almost three months after she accused a senior Chinese official of sexual assault and then virtually disappeared from public life.
But Navratilova, the retired Czech who won 18 grand slam singles titles, said she found it difficult to believe.
“That’s just pathetic,” Navratilova tweeted. “The @wta stands pretty much alone on this.”
She then appeared on the Tennis Channel alongside Lindsay Davenport and spoke more expansively on the issue.
“Sport has always been on the forefront of social issues, pushing them forward, and we are going backwards I feel … I find it really, really cowardly,” she said.
“This is not a political statement, this is a human rights statement. And chances are Peng Shuai may be playing here but, she couldn’t get out of the country? Anyway, I think they’re wrong on this.
“The WTA has been so strong on this issue … and the players, really taking a chance on their pocket book. The ATP was pretty weak on this. The IOC, well we know where they are. And just really capitulating on this issue from the Aussies, letting China dictate what they do at their own slam.”
Peng has appeared only rarely on Chinese social media since early November when her post on Weibo, in which she accused the former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault, was quickly deleted from China’s heavily censored internet.
In late December, Peng retracted her allegations in an interview with Singapore media outlet Lianhe Zaobao, a Chinese-language publication under the state-controlled Singapore Press Holdings Limited.
“First, I need to stress one point that is extremely important, I have never said or written that anyone has sexually assaulted me, I have to clearly stress this point,” Peng said in the video posted by Lianhe Zaobao.
She said her deleted Weibo post was a “private matter”.
Davenport, the American former world number one, described the situation as “absolutely heartbreaking”.
“The WTA used so much good, strong language when this first went down, and unfortunately this story just seems to … be quiet, just push it in the back,” she said. “People in tennis, we want to see her. She was a real part of this tour. But most importantly we want to know she’s OK.”
Numerous players at the Australian Open have spoken of their concern for Peng's safety, and Frenchman Nicolas Mahut tweeted about the incident at Melbourne Park.
“What’s going on!? What lack of courage! What if you did not have Chinese sponsors?” Mahut tweeted.
A fundraising page to raise money to print more ‘Where is Peng Shuai?’ T-shirts to be handed out for free during the women’s final has reached more than $12,000 in two days.
TA has been approached for comment.