After video emerged of security officials and police instructing fans on Saturday to remove shirts with the slogan, “Where is Peng Shuai?” on them, Tennis Australia (TA) defended its stance by saying the tournament does not allow political statements.
TA’s position dismayed 18-times Grand Slam winner Navratilova, who said the national governing body was giving in to China and placing sponsorship money ahead of human rights concerns.
“I find it really, really cowardly,” she said on the U.S.-based Tennis Channel. “I think they are wrong on this. This is not a political statement, this is a human rights statement.
“(Tennis Australia is) just really capitulating on this issue … letting the Chinese really dictate what they do at their own Slam. I just find it really weak.”
Tennis Australia reiterated its stance on Monday, adding that Peng’s safety remained its “primary concern”.
“We continue to work with the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) and the global tennis community to do everything we can to ensure (Peng’s) well-being. Our work is ongoing and through the appropriate channels,” a spokesperson said in a statement to Reuters.
Peng’s situation became a matter of concern in November when she alleged that a former Chinese vice premier, Zhang Gaoli, had sexually assaulted her in the past. After that post, she was absent from public view for nearly three weeks.
Last month she said she had never accused anyone of sexually assaulting her, and that a social media post she had made had been misunderstood.
The WTA suspended tournaments in China due to its concerns over Peng’s safety.
Zhang has not commented on the matter. China has not directly commented on Peng’s initial post, but said after the WTA’s move that it is against making sport political.
“China has always opposed the politicization of sports, such behaviour is unpopular and will not succeed,” China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian reiterated on Monday, referring to the Peng shirts at Melbourne Park.
French player Nicolas Mahut slammed TA’s response on Twitter: “What lack of courage! What if you did not have Chinese sponsors.”
Baijiu distillery Luzhu Laojiao and Chinese mattress company De Rucci are sponsors of the year’s first Grand Slam.
On Monday, Peng supporters in Australia said they were planning to hand out 1,000 “Where is Peng Shuai?” T-shirts at Melbourne Park this week after raising more than $10,000 on a GoFundMe page.
“We can see how many match-goers that they can stop,” activist Max Mok told Australian ABC Radio.
TA said security officials will continue to enforce its policy at Melbourne Park.
“The policy will continue to be applied in relation to any items that compromise the safety and comfort of AO fans,” the organisers said.
By Courtney Walsh.
(Reporting by Andrew Both and Courtney Walsh, additional reporting by Gabriel Crossley; Writing by Sudipto Ganguly; Editing by Peter Rutherford/Hugh Lawson/Ken Ferris)