Women's tennis takes on China with threat to pull its business

Steve Simon has accused China of lying to him about Peng's safety

Nothing in Steve Simon's career as a tennis promoter prepared him for the crisis he is suddenly faced with this month: a player’s disappearance that has forced his organization, the Women’s Tennis Association, into a standoff with the Chinese government.

But the string of events since a post on the social media account of a Chinese player named Peng Shuai accused one the country’s most senior retired officials of sexual assault has placed Simon, the head of the WTA, in an unexpected role. He is the rare sports executive willing to quit one of the most lucrative foreign markets on the planet. 

Simon has accused China of lying to him about Peng’s safety amid mounting international outrage, and he has indicated that he understands the stakes.

"We’re at a crossroads with our relationship, obviously, with China," Simon said in a televised interview with CNN on Thursday. "We’re definitely willing to pull our business, and deal with all the complications that come with it, because this is bigger than the business."

FILE - Peng Shuai of China celebrates after winning the women's singles match against Venus Williams of the United States in the China Open tennis tournament at the National Tennis Stadium in Beijing, Monday, Oct. 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Andy Wong, File)

Peng has been unheard from since a Nov. 2 post on her verified account on the Twitter-like Weibo platform that accused former Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault. The post disappeared after roughly 20 minutes, and searches for her name on popular Chinese social-media platforms have been blocked ever since. Zhang has not addressed the allegation publicly and cannot be reached.

Earlier this week, Simon received an email saying that the accusation was untrue and that Peng was safe. China’s state broadcaster, which posted a screenshot of the email, said Peng had written it. Simon told CNN that he doubted that and now believes it was not written by her, or that she may have been coerced into writing it. He had earlier received assurances from the Chinese Tennis Association that she wasn’t in danger, but said he couldn’t corroborate them.


China’s Foreign Ministry didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Simon's remarks.

Peng, 35, is a two-time winner of Grand Slam doubles titles and rose as high as No. 14 in the world singles rankings in 2014. Chinese state media in those days called her one of the country’s "golden flowers" in tennis.

FILE PHOTO: A file photo of China’s Peng Shuai serving during a match at the Australian Open on January 15, 2019. REUTERS/Edgar Su/File Photo/File Photo

This week, her name became the foundation of the hashtag #whereispengshuai, which is being used by athletes around the world. The most prominent message yet came from Serena Williams on Thursday afternoon, though she didn’t make any direct mention of China.

"I am devastated and shocked to hear about the news of my peer, Peng Shuai," she wrote on Twitter. "I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible. This must be investigated and we must not stay silent."


Other sports organizations have run afoul of China in recent years, but none has said it was prepared to abandon the market altogether. In 2019, the National Basketball Association lost hundreds of millions of dollars, according to the league’s commissioner, following a firestorm caused by a tweet by then-Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey in support of anti-government protests in Hong Kong. Games were pulled from streaming services and sponsors fled and the league has moved cautiously in China ever since.

The English Premier League also saw a handful of Arsenal games pulled from the Chinese internet and television after midfielder Mesut Özil criticized China over its treatment of ethnic minority Muslims. Coverage quietly resumed, but Özil is no longer an Arsenal player.

FILE - WTA Chief Executive Officer Steve Simon smiles during a retirement ceremony for Martina Hingis in Singapore on Oct. 29, 2017. (AP Photo/Yong Teck Lim, File)

With revenues that hover around $100 million a year, according to financial filings, the Florida-based WTA doesn’t rival either organization—the NBA or the Premier League—for size or wealth. And yet, women’s tennis could become the first to sever ties entirely, despite China’s becoming one of the WTA’s favorite and most profitable destinations.

In 2018, Simon helped the tour sign a 10-year deal that was due to put the WTA Finals in China every year until 2028 and double the prize purse to $14 million, making it one of the rare women’s sporting events to pay players more than its counterpart on the men’s side. And until Covid postponements wreaked havoc on the schedule, there were 11 Chinese tournaments on the calendar—although the tour didn’t visit any of them this year due to border closures. In 2019, the tour’s most recent complete season, the WTA went  to China nine times, making up roughly one-seventh of all tour-level events.


The organization also relies on support from Chinese sponsors, counting the Beijing-based streaming service iQiyi as one of its four global partners, alongside the likes of Porsche and the German software company SAP.

Yet Simon and the tour’s players have been unequivocal in their support of Peng.

FILE - Then Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli is seen during a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Wednesday, March 16, 2016. Chinese authorities have squelched virtually all online discussion of sexual assault accusations appar

"The circuit survived this year without a swing through Asia, even if there’s a lot of money there," the veteran player Alizé Cornet said in an interview with the French sports daily L’Equipe. "That might reassure us that we could survive without the Chinese part of the tour. If we had to split from it at some point because it doesn’t match our values, then we still have to do it, even if we lose something financially."

The choice facing the WTA now is a stark one, since Simon’s entire career was geared to helping women’s tennis make money. He joined the Indian Wells tournament in California’s Coachella Valley in 1989 to sell tickets and ads. And after he became tournament director in 2004, he was credited with growing its prize money and reputation enough to make it the most prestigious women’s tennis event outside of the four majors. Indian Wells was sold to billionaire Larry Ellison in 2009 and is now known as the BNP Paribas Open.


Simon’s greatest moment of highwire diplomacy during his 11 years in charge came in 2015, when he negotiated Serena Williams’s first appearance at Indian Wells after a 14-year boycott due to racist taunts she had heard from crowds there early in her career.

"When I returned to Indian Wells this year," Williams said at the time, "Steve could not have been more helpful, professional and supportive. I know how much he cares about the opinions of the players. He’s a good listener and he has our best interests in mind."

In dealing with China, Simon has kept his focus on Peng’s well-being and avoided straying into politics. But the political conversation has come to him, as China hawks in the U.S. Congress stepped up their attacks on Beijing’s hosting of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in February. Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, on Thursday called for a total U.S. boycott of the Games, citing among his reasons his fears that the U.S. couldn’t keep them safe from Chinese surveillance "or even hostage-taking."


Cotton’s aides later issued a statement tying the call to Peng Shuai. "If the Chinese Communists disappear their own athletes, just think how much less they’ll care for the safety of ours," his statement said.

Aides to Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, said she was preparing to send a letter about Peng’s case to the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee. They said the letter will state that, in light of Peng’s disappearance, it is impossible to feel confident that athletes will be protected if they attend the Olympics in Beijing.

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