Navratilova hits out over Peng Shuai t-shirt ban

Martina Navratilova has accused Tennis Australia of taking a “weak and cowardly” approach by banning t-shirts supporting Peng Shuai at the Australian Open.

In November 2021, Peng accused a former Chinese Communist party vice-premier, Zhang Gaoli, of alleged sexual coercion three years previous.

Her Weibo social media account has since been disabled and her public appearances have been sporadic since. That prompted concern around the world, including from professional tennis players, about her safety and whereabouts.

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And the tennis great, who has 59 Grand Slam titles across singles and doubles, has been vocal in her criticism of Tennis Australia – previously saying the approach to blocking the “Where is Peng Shuai?” items is “pathetic” in a post on Twitter.

The WTA has reportedly requested stronger evidence that Peng is safe and well and the tour will not hold events in China until it is satisfied.

“Sports has always been kind of on the forefront of social issues, pushing them forward, and we are going backwards I feel,” Navratilova told the Tennis Channel.

“We’ve had the issue with Peng Shuai, and now there were fans at the tournament watching Naomi Osaka practise, they weren’t even on the main court, they had ‘Where is Peng Shuai’ on their T-shirt and they were told to cover it up.

I find it really, really cowardly. This is not a political statement, this is a human rights statement.

“Kind of really capitulating on this issue from the Aussies and letting the Chinese really dictate what they do at their own Slam. I just find it really weak.”

Tennis Australia released a statement on Sunday regarding the incident.

“Under our ticket conditions of entry we don’t allow clothing, banners or signs that are commercial or political,” a spokesperson said.

“Peng Shuai’s safety is our primary concern. We continue to work with the WTA and global tennis community to seek more clarity on her situation and will do everything we can to ensure her well-being.”

A number of players have voiced their concerns for Peng throughout the tournament, including quarter-finalist Alize Cornet, who said: “It’s still very unsure how she’s doing but I think the fact to put some lights on this story was good for her overall. Now we are of course all waiting for more details that we don’t have so far, but we keep our fingers crossed.”

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Fans see 'Where is Peng Shuai?' banners confiscated at Australian Open

Australian Open authorities have confiscated banners and t-shirts bearing the ‘Where is Peng Shuai?’ slogan.

Tournament organisers said in a statement that the safety of Peng Shuai was their primary concern, but added that “commercial or political” banner were not allowed inside Melbourne Park.

Fans have launched a GoFundMe page in response.

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Since Peng made allegations of sexual assault towards China’s former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli on Weibo back in November there have been worries over her safety, with Peng temporarily disappearing and her post being removed.

She has since appeared publicly, but concerns continue, and two fans arriving at Melbourne Park on Sunday decided to highlight the 36-year-old’s plight with their material.

But they saw their items swiftly removed by security, with the tournament later revealing the reason why in a statement to ESPN.

“Under our ticket conditions of entry we don’t allow clothing, banners or signs that are commercial or political,” a spokesperson said.

“Peng Shuai’s safety is our primary concern. We continue to work with the WTA and global tennis community to seek more clarity on her situation and will do everything we can to ensure her well-being.”

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The activists’ next step in response was to set up a GoFundMe page – with its aim to see 1,000 fans highlight the issue at the tournament’s women’s final by wearing the t-shirts.

At the time of writing, the page has raised $7,805 Australian dollars of a target of $10,000.

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Osaka ‘proud’ of WTA handling of Peng situation but insists ‘we need more information’

Naomi Osaka wants more information on Peng Shuai’s safety, saying “everyone is waiting”, but also praised the WTA handling of the situation.

In November, former Wimbledon and Roland Garros doubles champion Peng accused a former Chinese Communist party vice-premier, Zhang Gaoli, of alleged sexual coercion three years ago.

Her Weibo social media account was then disabled and her public appearances have been sparse since, with Chinese state media releasing videos purportedly showing Peng at dinner, and another appearing to show her at a youth tennis match in Beijing in late November – the validity of both were widely questioned.

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That has prompted concern around the world – including from professional tennis players – about her safety and whereabouts.

And following her first-round Australian Open win against Camila Osorio, Osaka called for more information on Peng while praising the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) for suspending tournaments in China.

“I haven’t heard any news,” she said. “So I’m not sure if that’s concerning or not. The WTA handled it really well and I’m really proud of them, and I think it’s a situation where we need more information, which is really hard.”

I think everyone is waiting.”

Osaka took a lengthy break from the sport in 2021 after struggling with her mental health, but she appeared in high spirits during her dominant 6-3, 6-3 performance and admitted she is more focused on “having fun” in the sport.

“I’ve been weighed down too much trying to prove myself,” she added. “I just want to have fun first of all. I can’t expect myself to win every match, but I do expect myself to have fun and challenge myself.

“I just feel like there are situations where I previously would get upset but at this point in my life I’m here because I want to be here and because I find that it’s fun for me. I think just to be playing on Rod Laver and to have such a good streak on it is something I could be proud of and something I enjoy.

“I felt like I wanted to come back to play tennis. Usually it feels automatic but I came back when I wanted to come back.”

And while Osaka has admitted to struggling with press conferences in the past, she looked calm and relaxed enough to expertly swerve a question on the Djokovic visa saga that has dominated the headlines.

When asked whether the Serbian world number one should be playing in Melbourne, she said: “I’ll pass on that, thanks though.”

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'Real truth may never be known' – Muguruza fears Peng may not be able 'to talk freely'

Garbine Muguruza has admitted she fears ‘real truth’ about what happen Peng Shuai may never be known.

Former Wimbledon and Roland Garros doubles champion Peng alleged on social media in November that she had been forced into sex during a long-term on-off relationship with vice-premier Zhang Gaoli.

But her post was deleted and censored before she disappeared from public. She reappeared three weeks but doubts remain over how free she really is.

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And world number three Muguruza believes the world may never know the truth under the circumstances.

“Are we going to know something about this? I don’t know, I think it’s a complicated country to deal with,” Muguruza told reporters ahead of the Australian Open, where Peng will be absent.

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“It’s a little bit not moving forward, I feel. It’s just there since months and months.

“It seemed like for a moment, okay, we’re going to find out what’s happening.

I think it’s going to be very difficult to find a real truth and for her to be able to talk freely.”

The WTA announced in December that they would immediately suspend all tournaments in China and Hong Kong, as concerns continue to mount over the safety and well-being of Peng Shuai.

And Muguruza believes that was absolutely the right decision while uncertainty remains over Peng’s safety.

“I feel like this is something that the WTA has done great,” added Muguruza.

“I think they’ve showed a lot of courage and character by supporting these and taking these strong decisions.”

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