The WTA, which suspended events in China in late 2021 due to concerns about Chinese player Peng Shuai, plans to resume tournament operations in China later this year.
The return announced on Thursday is also a retreat.
In November 2021, when one of China’s biggest tennis stars, Penn, accused a former Chinese government official of sexually assaulting a former Chinese government official in a social media post, the WTA and its chairman and CEO, Steve Simon, came out strong. I showed my attitude.
The WTA called for a “full and transparent” investigation into Peng’s allegations, which were soon censored online in China, and asked for the opportunity to speak directly with her. The following month, the WTA suspended tournaments in China and announced that the tour would not resume until demands were met.
Sixteen months later, the WTA virtually blinked in the face of a stalemate.
In an interview this week, Simon said, “Currently, we are confident that the demands we put forward will not be met.” Our members believe it is time to resume our mission in China, where we believe we can continue to bring about positive change as we have done over the past 20 years. It hasn’t been forgotten and we can make some progress by coming back.”
The WTA’s suspension of the China tournament was more symbolic than material. China has canceled nearly all international sporting events for 2021 and 2022 in response to the coronavirus pandemic. was almost certain. But at a time when global sports leaders often bow to China and its economic influence, her WTA move in 2021 still sent a strong message. .
“It was very exciting for human rights groups at the time to see the WTA basically behaving like everyone else,” said Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, on Thursday. “It’s very disappointing to see.”
The WTA was an outlier against China. Even the men’s tennis tour, the ATP, did not follow suit and did not suspend events in China, including the Masters 1000 tournament in Shanghai. It will be held this year for the first time since his 2019 as Chinese authorities have lifted pandemic-related restrictions.
“In reality, we were the only ones who did it,” Simon said. “That’s okay. We didn’t ask for the world to join us per se. Everyone has to make their own decisions. I strongly believe in that. I think it definitely makes a difference and that’s probably why we’re where we are and where we’re adjusting.”
Over the years, China has become a more important market for the WTA than for the ATP. The Women’s Tour hosted nine events in China in 2019, accounting for about one-third of the WTA’s annual revenue. The most important of these tournaments was her season-ending WTA Finals in Shenzhen, where she was awarded $14 million in prize money in 2019. This was the first year of her 10-year contract lucratively.
The tour, which relied heavily on revenue from the WTA Finals, took a major financial hit when the event was canceled in 2020, moving to Guadalajara, Mexico in 2021 and Fort Worth in 2022. Guadalajara and Fort Worth had to pay a significantly lower WTA prize of $5 million.
Simon said the tour will resume in China in September. The schedule isn’t complete yet, but he said he plans to host eight tournaments this year. His WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai. The final, suggested by Simon, will be staged in Shenzhen until 2031, fulfilling an original ten-year promise.
Simon said some of the events outside of China that filled the gaps in the second half of the 2022 season, including tournaments in San Diego, Guadalajara and Tunisia, will remain on the tour’s fall schedule this year.
The WTA has faced significant financial headwinds since the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, with overall prize money falling further behind the men’s tour. Last month, the WTA announced a commercial partnership with CVC Capital Partners, a global private equity firm, to invest her $150 million in the tour.
A return to China would further strengthen the WTA’s finances, but Simon rejected suggestions that the decision was all about the ultimate benefit.
“This decision was not made in any way under the Finals contract,” Simon said. “It was based in the best interest of the organization and we felt this was in its best interest. was not the basis for
Simon said it was also important for women’s sports to have women’s tennis have a presence in China.
Peng has disappeared from public view for weeks after posting the initial allegations on Chinese social media platform Weibo in 2021. She then reappeared and she met with Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee, during the February 2022 Beijing Games. She was misunderstood and she was interviewed by the international news media, claiming she had not actually made any allegations of sexual assault.
But the WTA continues to question whether she can speak freely. That alone will never make her truly free as long as she is in China.”
Simon said the WTA was unable to establish direct contact with Penn, but the tour was assured by “people close to the area where she is safe and where she lives with her family in Beijing.” said he received
Despite public strife between the WTA and the Chinese government, Simon said officials from the sport’s national governing body had provided the WTA with assurances that “players and staff would be safe while in China.” Stated.
The return to China comes at a time of heightened political tensions between China and the West, but this year also saw other international events such as the diamond league in athletics and the multi-sport Asian Games. come back to china. Simon said the WTA had investigated the player prior to making the decision.
“Of course there were some players who didn’t support coming back, but the majority said it was time to come back,” Simon said.
Some tennis officials thought Simon and the WTA had gone too far in demanding a Chinese investigation into Peng’s accusations as a condition of his suspension. But the WTA has also been widely praised for its strong stance by human rights groups and others.
“In the end, they still gave in to the pressure,” Wang said. “It doesn’t surprise me because the money is at stake. But what happened underscores what Human Rights Watch has always said about the need for business and government to work together. If you stand up to the Chinese government alone, the price is high and your influence is small.”
Does Simon feel the WTA is letting people down?
“I am proud of the position we have taken,” he said. “If I had to make the decision again, I definitely would have done the same. Unfortunately, we didn’t achieve everything we wanted. Done, things have to evolve, and if it doesn’t work out, you can’t keep doing the same thing.”