The CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has cast doubt on an email received from Chinese player Peng Shuai and said he is increasingly concerned for the whistleblower’s safety.
Steve Simon, WTA chairman and CEO, addressed an email from Peng Shuai, which was released by Chinese media on Wednesday evening.
Former Wimbledon doubles champion Peng had not been heard from directly since she made sexual assault allegations against a top Chinese official last week.
The 35-year-old claimed on the Chinese social media site Weibo she had been forced into having sex with Zhang Gaoli, a married politician 40 years her senior and who until 2018 served as the government’s senior vice premier.
While acknowledging that the two of them had an affair in the past dating back to 2011, Peng stated that in 2018 it was rekindled and she was compelled to have sex with him at his home.
The message, on a platform heavily monitored by the Chinese authorities, was removed within 30 minutes but since then internet references to one of the country’s most successful tennis players have been largely erased.
Concern for Peng Shuai was raised on Wednesday when CGTN Europe, a Chinese state-affiliated media company, released an email to Simon addressed by Shuai.
The chairman of the WTA has cast doubt on an email received from Peng Shuai on Wednesday
Chinese state-affiliated media revealed an email which was reported to be from Peng Shuai in which she denied the allegations of sexual assault she made last week on social media
Steve Simon, the WTA chairman and CEO, said he has a ‘hard time believing’ that Peng Shuai actually wrote the leaked email
It read: ‘Hello everyone this is Peng Shuai.
‘Regarding the recent news released on the official website of the WTA, the content has not been confirmed or verified by myself and it was released without my consent.
‘The news in that release, including the allegation of sexual assault, is not true. I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe.
‘I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine. Thank you again for caring about me.’
She added: ‘If the WTA publishes any more news about me, please verify it with me, and release it with my consent. As a professional tennis player, I thank you all for your companionship and consideration.
‘I hope to promote Chinese tennis with you all if I have the chance in the future. I hope Chinese tennis will become better and better. Once again, thank you for your consideration.’
That email immediately raised alarm and Simon released a statement casting doubt on the veracity of the authorship.
Peng made the allegations in a lengthy social media post on Weibo which was quickly deleted before her account was heavily censored
Peng alleged that senior politician Zhang Gaoli, 40 years her senior, sexually assaulted her in a bedroom at his house, while his wife was present
Simon wrote: ‘The statement released today by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts.
‘I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her.
‘Peng Shuai displayed incredible courage in describing an allegation of sexual assault against a former top official in the Chinese government.
‘The WTA and the rest of the world need independent and verifiable proof that she is safe.
‘I have repeatedly tried to reach her via numerous forms of communication, to no avail.’
He added: ‘Peng Shuai must be allowed to speak freely, without coercion or intimidation from any source.
Naomi Osaka used the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai as she expressed her ‘shock’ on Twitter
The men’s world No 1 Novak Djokovic also expressed his concern over her disappearance
FULL WTA STATEMENT
‘The statement released today by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts.
‘I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her. Peng Shuai displayed incredible courage in describing an allegation of sexual assault against a former top official in the Chinese government. The WTA and the rest of the world need independent and verifiable proof that she is safe. I have repeatedly tried to reach her via numerous forms of communication, to no avail.
Peng Shuai must be allowed to speak freely, without coercion or intimidation from any source. Her allegation of sexual assault must be respected, investigated with full transparency and without censorship.
The voices of women need to be heard and respected, not censored nor dictated to.’
‘Her allegation of sexual assault must be respected, investigated with full transparency and without censorship.
‘The voices of women need to be heard and respected, not censored nor dictated to.’
The game’s top players have spoken out in support of Peng Shuai in the days following her allegations of sexual assault.
Novak Djokovic, the world No 1 in the men’s game, expressed surprise at the happenings surrounding Peng, who has won two singles wins and 23 doubles triumphs.
‘Honestly, it’s shocking that she’s missing, especially since she’s someone I’ve seen on the circuit several times in past years,’ Djokovic said.
‘I don’t know what else to say except that I hope she’ll be found and that she’ll be okay.’
Japanese player Naomi Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam champion, has become the latest to voice her concerns about Peng.
She wrote on Twitter using the hashtag #WhereisPengShuai: ‘I was recently informed of a fellow tennis player that has gone missing shortly after revealing that she has been sexually abused.
‘I hope Peng Shuai and her family are safe and OK. I’m in shock of the current situation and I’m sending love and light her way.’
Zhang, 75, who served as China’s vice premier between 2013 and 2018, has not responded to Peng’s claims.