The Women’s Tennis Association has implemented a shock ban on all tournaments in China, amid ongoing fears for the safety of former doubles world No.1 Peng Shuai.
The WTA announced the suspension on Thursday following weeks of high-profile back-and-forth between it, the sport’s top stars, and Beijing.
In a statement, WTA chairman and chief executive Steve Simon said the organisation “in good conscience” could not hold tournaments in China.
“I don’t see how I can ask our athletes to compete there when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault,” he said.
“Given the current state of affairs, I am also greatly concerned about the risks that all of our players and staff could face if we were to hold events in China in 2022.”
The ban won’t be cheap. China brings in an estimated $US1 billion ($A1.4 billion) in funding for the season-ending WTA Finals, plus 10-plus other tournaments the Asian powerhouse hosts each year.
“This is bigger than the business. Women need to be respected and not censored,” Simon said last month.
The ban also includes tournaments in Hong Kong.
On Thursday, Simon repeated his call for a “full and transparent investigation – without censorship” into Peng’s accusations.
He said unless China took the steps the WTA had demand, it could not put players and staff at risk by holding events there.
“China’s leaders have left the WTA with no choice,” Simon said.
“I remain hopeful that our pleas will be heard and the Chinese authorities will take steps to legitimately address this issue.”
Previously, Simon has cast doubt on the legitimacy of an email released by Chinese state media attributed to Peng, who has been missing for weeks.
The Chinese star made allegations of sexual abuse against a high-level Chinese government member on social media on November 2.
She said Zhang Gaoli, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee – China’s top decision-making body – had coerced her into sex and they later had an on-off consensual relationship.
Peng, 35, said in the post that she could provide no evidence to back her allegations.. But it was deleted after just half an hour, and she has since disappeared from public life.
On November 17, China’s state-owned news channel CGTN tweeted photos of the missing tennis star, reporting she was “resting at home and everything is fine”.
Chinese media has reported that Peng attended a junior tournament in Bejing. She also spoke with Thomas Bach, the International Olympic Committee president, saying she was “safe and well”.
However, fears remained for her safety, with the European Union demanding proof Peng was safe.
On Thursday, Simon praised Peng’s courage in coming forward.
“As Peng said in her post, ‘Even if it is like an egg hitting a rock, or if I am like a moth drawn to the flame, inviting self-destruction, I will tell the truth about you’,” he said.
“She knew the dangers she would face, yet she went public anyway. I admire her strength and courage.”