The WTA, the organizer of top-tier women’s professional tennis, has today (April 13) announced that it will resume tournaments in China from September.

The organization suspended its tournament activities in the country at the end of 2021 in response to concerns about the wellbeing of Chinese player Peng Shuai after she accused former Chinese vice premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual coercion, subsequently retracted the accusation, and then disappeared from the public eye.

At the time, the WTA’s chairman and chief executive Steve Simon praised Peng for going public but said China had censored the accusation and discussion of it and failed to prove that Peng has not been under duress since she made the allegation.

Simon added that he didn’t see how the WTA’s athletes could be asked to play in the country while Peng was being “pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault.”

In today’s announcement, the WTA has acknowledged that it has not achieved what it set out for but that it would lift the suspension for the benefit of its players.

The statement reads: “In 2021, when Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai bravely came forward, the WTA took a stance and suspended its operation of events in China out of concern for her safety and the safety of our players and staff. When we moved forward with this decision, we were not sure if others would join us. We received much praise for our principled stand and believe we sent a powerful message to the world. But praise alone is insufficient to bring about change.

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“After 16 months of suspended tennis competition in China and sustained efforts at achieving our original requests, the situation has shown no sign of changing. We have concluded we will never fully secure those goals, and it will be our players and tournaments who ultimately will be paying an extraordinary price for their sacrifices.”

The WTA added that it has been in touch with people close to Peng and has been assured that “she is living safely with her family in Beijing,” adding that it has received assurances that WTA players and staff operating in China will be safe and protected while in the country.

It noted that, despite not achieving its goals is suspending tournament activity in China, it feels that now is the time to return to its mission in the country and is “hopeful that by returning more progress can be made.”

The WTA had said in January that its return to China would require a resolution to the Peng situation, meaning today’s statement represents a change of direction.

The announcement follows that of the International Tennis Federation (ITF), which said on April 3 that it would resume tournament activity in China later this year for the first time since 2019.

Reuters quoted ITF president David Haggerty as saying: “We have received reassurance that it’s safe for players, their families, and teams, to compete in China, so we’re looking forward to bringing the World Tennis Tour back there.”

Peng’s initial post on the Weibo social media platform in November 2021 alleged that Zhang Gaoli had coerced her into sex.

The post was quickly removed – by Peng herself she was subsequently reported to have said – her profile hidden from search results, and discussion of the issue on the web censored in the country.

In an impromptu video interview with Singaporean Chinese-language newspaper Lianhe Zaobao in December 2021, Peng said there had been “a lot of misunderstandings” about her post, that she had “never said or written that anyone sexually assaulted me,” and that she was not under any form of duress or surveillance.

Peng reiterated her remarks in an interview at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics Games in February last year, but questions remained due to the presence of a Chinese Olympic Committee official at the interview and the controlled conditions under which it was held.

Image: Wang He/Getty Images