Tennis legend Martina Navratilova has accused the Australian Open organisers of “capitulating” to Beijing after it banished pro-Peng Shuai fans from Melbourne Park for refusing to remove their shirts with messages of support for the Chinese doubles player.
Footage emerged over the weekend of Tennis Australia’s security guards and Victoria police telling spectators to remove their “Where is Peng Shuai?” T-shirts and confiscating their banners. Tennis Australia (TA) defended its stance by saying although it feared for Peng’s wellbeing, the tournament ‘does not allow clothing, banners or signs that are commercial or political.’
Navratilova, the retired Czech who won 59 Grand Slam titles, said she thought Tennis Australia was “wrong” about the issue.
“Sport has always been on the forefront of social issues, pushing them forward, and we are going backwards. I find it really, really cowardly,” she told Tennis Channel.
“I think they’re wrong on this. This is not a political statement; this is a human rights statement. And chances are Peng Shuai may be playing here but, she couldn’t get out of the country?”
She noted that while Women’s Tennis Australia “has been so strong on this issue and tennis players have been “really taking a chance on their pocketbook,” some international sports organisations did not show the same level of concern for Peng Shuai’s wellbeing.
“The ATP was pretty weak on this. The IOC, well, we know where they are. And just really capitulating on this issue from the Aussies, letting China dictate what they do at their own slam. I just find it really weak.”
A number of professional tennis players have also voiced their concerns about Peng’s safety, with Frenchman Nicolas Mahut, World No. 5 doubles ace, speaking up about the t-shirt incidence.
“What’s going on!? What lack of courage! What if you did not have Chinese sponsors?” Mahut tweeted on Jan. 24. He included the hashtag #1573, alluding to one of Open’s major sponsors, Chinese premium liquor brand Guojiao 1573.
Mahut has been a vocal supporter of the Chinese tennis player, who last week invited Peng to hand over the winner’s trophy at the ongoing Open P2i Angers Loire on Sunday.
Meanwhile, France’s Alize Cornet, who has won six singles and three doubles titles on the WTA Tour, said she was surprised by the t-shirt incident.
“I think that everybody should be able to manifest their support to Peng Shuai,” she said.
“It’s still very unsure how she’s doing, but I think the fact to put some light on this story was good for her overall… Now we are of course all waiting for more details that we don’t have so far, but we keep our fingers crossed.”
Drew Pavlou, the founder of the “Drew Pavlou Democratic Alliance” federal political party, said his team planned to hand out 1000 “Where is Peng Shuai?” T-shirts at Melbourne Park this week after raising more than $15,000 on a GoFundMe page.
Activist Max Mok told The Age on Jan. 23 he did not trust TA’s statement that Peng’s wellbeing was its “primary concern.”
“Hypocrisy is an understatement, and it’s just a way for them to avoid a PR disaster,” he said.