Tennis Australia says Peng Shuai’s safety its ‘primary concern’ despite banning T-shirts supporting Chinese player

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Andy Brownbill/AP</span>
Photograph: Andy Brownbill/AP

Australian Open officials call police on protesters wearing ‘Where is Peng Shuai?’ T-shirts who unveiled banner at Melbourne tournament

Tennis Australia maintains Peng Shuai’s safety is its “primary concern” despite asking fans at Melbourne Park to remove T-shirts and a banner bearing the words “Where is Peng Shuai?”

Australian Open players have continued to express concern for the wellbeing of the Chinese tennis player who in early November accused a senior Chinese official of sexual assault.

But tournament officials have confiscated material they deemed to contain political statements.

This weekend, Brisbane activist Drew Pavlou posted a video to Twitter showing spectators being approached by security and then Victoria police.

The footage featured Max Mok, a pro-democracy campaigner from Hong Kong who recently announced his intention to contest the Melbourne marginal seat of Chisholm in this year’s federal election, and a fellow spectator in conversation with a member of Tennis Australia (TA) security who confiscated a banner.

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The security officer also asked the pair to remove their T-shirts which featured a photo of Peng on the front below the word “Wanted”. “Where is Peng Shuai?” was printed on the back of the T-shirt.

Mok queried the reason for the confiscations, and a police officer was called to explain that the material was in breach of TA’s policy banning political statements.

“I’m not saying you can’t have those views, but Tennis Australia sets the rules here,” the police officer said.

TA on Sunday confirmed that was the case.

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

“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 wellbeing.”

TA has had little to say on Peng who disappeared from public life for almost three months after her Weibo post in which she accused the former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli of alleged sexual assault. It was swiftly deleted from China’s heavily censored internet.

The Australian governing body has found itself in an uncomfortable balancing act given one of the Australian Open’s major commercial partners is Chinese premium liquor brand Guojiao 1573.

In contrast, the Women’s Tennis Association has held firm on its stance that it will not hold any tournaments in China in 2022. Its chairman and chief executive, Steve Simon, said it was putting “principles ahead of profit”, meaning the WTA was prepared to sacrifice a significant portion of its annual revenue, which comes from dealings with the global superpower.

Pavlou tweeted that he “tried to reason with police over the phone” and in the footage, officers are seen speaking with somebody on speakerphone. Pavlou has since set up a fundraising page to raise money to print more T-shirts to be handed out for free during the women’s final.

The page, which had raised $6,800 in 24 hours, pledged to “raise as much noise and hell about it as possible”.

“Sadly Tennis Australia has not taken such a firm stance in favour of human rights and basic standards of justice,” it states.

“In fact, Tennis Australia called police on human rights activists at the 2022 Australian Open for simply wearing shirts asking the same question Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and fans the world over have asked: ‘Where is Peng Shuai?’”

Osaka reiterated that stance this week before her Open exit, saying she was “proud” of the way the issue had been handled by the WTA.

“If I was in her position, I would want people to care for me, too,” Osaka said. “I imagine myself in her shoes and, in that way, it’s a little bit scary. But you want to lend your voice and you want people to ask the questions.”

Victoria Azarenka, a member of the WTA players council, said it had not heard from Peng directly.

“There hasn’t been that much development in terms of contact with Peng Shuai even though from our side we will continue to make any and all efforts to make sure that she is safe, she feels comfortable,” Azarenka said.

“Hopefully we will get to hear from her personally at some point. I think that’s the goal, the main goal right now.”

Ash Barty was also asked about the situation and said “we’re all looking out for her safety”.

“We all hope that she’s well,” the Australian world No 1 said. “We hope that she’s doing OK. Hopefully it’s not too long until we see her back out here.”

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