The WTA will resume operating tournaments in China later this year after having suspended events there in late 2021 because of concerns about the Chinese player Peng Shuai.
The return, announced Thursday, is also a retreat.
When Peng, one of China’s biggest tennis stars, accused a former top Chinese government official of sexual assault in a social media post in November 2021, the WTA and Steve Simon, its chairman and chief executive, took a strong stance.
The WTA called for a “full and transparent” inquiry into Peng’s allegations, which were quickly censored online in China, and requested an opportunity to speak with her directly. The next month, the WTA suspended its Chinese tournaments and announced that the tour would not return until its demands were met.
Sixteen months later, faced with a stalemate, the WTA has effectively blinked.
“We’re currently convinced that the requests that we put forth are not going to be met,” Simon said in an interview this week. “And, with that, to continue with the same strategy doesn’t seem to make sense, and we need a different approach. Our members believe it’s time to resume our mission in China, where we believe we can continue to make a positive difference, as I think we have over the last 20 years when we’ve been there, while at the same time making sure that Peng is not forgotten and that we can, by returning, make some progress.”
The WTA’s suspension of Chinese tournaments was more symbolic than substantive. China canceled nearly all international sports events in 2021 and 2022 in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Even without the WTA suspension, there almost certainly would have been no tour events in the country in 2022. But in a landscape in which global sports leaders have often kowtowed to China and its economic clout, the WTA’s move in 2021 still sent a strong message.
“It was very inspiring at that point for the human rights community, and it’s now an extremely disappointing thing to see that the WTA basically is acting like everyone else,” Yaqiu Wang, a senior China researcher with Human Rights Watch, said on Thursday. “It’s really a win for the Chinese government.”
The WTA was an outlier on China. Even the men’s tennis tour, the ATP, did not follow suit and never suspended any of its Chinese events, including the Masters 1000 tournament in Shanghai. With Chinese authorities lifting their pandemic-related restrictions, it is scheduled to be played this year for the first time since 2019.
“The reality is we were the only ones that did it,” Simon said. “That’s OK. We weren’t asking for the world to join us per se. Everyone has to make their own decisions. I believe very strongly in that. But I do think that it definitely makes a difference for sure and it’s probably why we’re in the situation that we’re in and we’re adjusting.”
Through the years, China has become a more important market for the WTA than for the ATP. The women’s tour held nine events in China in 2019, accounting for about one-third of the WTA’s annual revenue. The most significant of those tournaments was the season-ending WTA Finals in Shenzhen, which awarded $14 million in prize money in 2019, the first year of a lucrative 10-year deal.
The tour, which has relied heavily on revenue from the WTA Finals, took big financial hits when the event was canceled in 2020 and then moved to Guadalajara, Mexico, in 2021 and to Fort Worth in 2022. In Guadalajara and Fort Worth, the WTA had to pay the significantly lower prize money figure, $5 million, itself.
Simon said the tour would resume play in China in September. Though the schedule is not yet complete, he said he expected to hold eight tournaments there this year: regular tour events in Zhengzhou, Beijing, Guangzhou, Nanchang, Hong Kong and Wuhan; the WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai; and the Finals, which Simon indicated would be staged in Shenzhen through 2031 to fulfill the original 10-year commitment.
Simon said several of the events outside China that filled the late-season gap in 2022 would remain on the tour’s fall schedule this year, including tournaments in San Diego, Guadalajara and also in Tunisia.
The WTA has faced major financial headwinds since the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, with its overall prize money falling even further behind the men’s tour. Last month, the WTA announced a commercial partnership with CVC Capital Partners, a global private equity firm, which will make a $150 million investment in the tour.
The return to China will further bolster the WTA’s finances, but Simon rejected the suggestion that the decision was all about the bottom line.
“This decision wasn’t made based upon the Finals deal in any way, shape or form,” Simon said. “It was based upon what was in the best interest of the organization, and we felt this was in that best interest. Will it be good for our balance sheet and those types of things, yes it will, but that wasn’t the basis for the decision.”
Simon said it was also important to women’s sports that women’s tennis have a presence in China, where the game has grown since the success of Li Na, the first Grand Slam singles champion from China.
Peng disappeared from public view for several weeks after posting her initial allegations on the Chinese social media platform Weibo in 2021. She has since reappeared, meeting with the International Olympic Committee’s president, Thomas Bach, during the Beijing Games in February 2022. She has also given interviews to the international news media, claiming that she had been misunderstood and had not actually made sexual assault allegations.
But the WTA has continued to question whether she is able to speak freely. “I don’t know what her current thinking is,” said Wang of Human Rights Watch. “But for what she has done, just by making the Weibo post, she will never be truly free as long as she stays in China.”
Though Simon said the WTA had remained unable to establish direct contact with Peng, he said the tour had received assurances from “people close to Peng in the area that she is safe and living with her family in Beijing.”
Despite the public standoff between the WTA and the Chinese government, Simon said that officials from the sport’s national governing body had provided the WTA with assurances that “our athletes and staff will be safe when they are in China.”
The move back to China comes at a moment of rising political tension between China and the West, but other international events, including track and field’s Diamond League and the Asian Games, a multisport competition, are also returning to the country this year. Simon said the WTA had polled its players ahead of the decision.
“We obviously had some players who were not supportive of a return, but the majority said it’s time to go back,” Simon said.
Some tennis officials believed Simon and the WTA had overreached by demanding a Chinese investigation into Peng’s accusations as a condition of lifting the suspension. But the WTA also received widespread plaudits for its strong stance from human rights organizations and others.
“Eventually they still succumbed to the pressure,” Wang said. “I’m not surprised because of the money that is at stake. But what happened right now really drives home the point that Human Rights Watch always makes, which is that businesses and governments need to do it together. If you stand up to the Chinese government alone, the cost is big, and your leverage is small.”
Does Simon feel the WTA is now letting people down?
“We’re proud of the position we took,” he said. “If I had to make the decision over again, I would have made the same one, no question about it. We do think that people understand we took on a very difficult issue. We’ve done our best to get the results fulfilled, but unfortunately we have not been able to accomplish everything we wanted to. But we’ve also been able to make sure Peng is safe and secure, and she isn’t being forgotten or left behind. Things have to evolve. You can’t keep doing the same thing if it’s not working.”