Peng Shuai: Man claiming to know athlete says WTA head ignored mail

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Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The email had been allegedly sent from Peng Shuai to WTA head Steve Simon

A man claiming to be an associate of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai has accused the head of the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) of ignoring an email from her.

Ding Li tweeted a screenshot of mail he claims she wrote to WTA chief Steve Simon asking not to be "disturbed".

Ms Peng disappeared from public view after accusing former Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexually assaulting her.

The WTA has led a chorus of voices demanding proof of her safety.

Ms Peng, 35, who is one of China's top tennis players, had earlier this month written a 1,600-word post on Chinese social media platform Weibo, where she laid out her allegations against the 75-year-old Mr Zhang.

This is the most significant case of its kind in China's slow-moving #MeToo movement.

Little is known about Mr Ding, who claims he is friends with the tennis star. He is reportedly a senior executive of a company that organises sport events and manages athletes, and his relationship to her is also not clear.

He said Ms Peng had sent an email to Mr Simon, in which she said: "At the moment I do not want to be disturbed, and especially [can you] not hype up my personal affairs. I hope to live quietly. Thank you again for your concern."

In an email interview with the BBC, Mr Ding alleged that Mr Simon had received the emails but "avoided" her.

He also claimed Mr Simon had given her contact details to more than 10 tennis players as well as media outlets, causing her to be "bothered" by many phone calls.

This, he said, was "a very big factor" in why she was not talking to Mr Simon.

The BBC has approached the WTA for a response to Mr Ding's allegations.

Mr Ding added that she was in Beijing and had "freedom of movement". He claimed Ms Peng was under "absolutely no supervision nor pressure, and there was definitely no punishment".

When the BBC asked to speak to her however, he said she declined as her life had already been "significantly impacted". Asked why she was not directly addressing the public, he said "she only wishes to have a good rest alone in her own home", reiterating a line carried in state media to justify her absence from public view.

Many including the WTA and activist groups have expressed doubt about such claims.

Mr Ding added that the authorities were not investigating nor taking any action with regards to Ms Peng's accusations, as her alleged emails to WTA showed "there was no sexual assault". This is despite Ms Peng having explicitly stated she was forced to have sex with Zhang Gaoli.

Media caption,
WTA chairman 'worried about Peng's safety'

Mr Simon has threatened to pull the WTA's business out of China, which would have a big effect. There are 10 WTA events scheduled to take place in the country next year including the Wuhan Open and WTA finals in Shenzhen.

The Wuhan Open next year will be the first time tennis players have returned to the city since the start of the pandemic.

The UN and US have also demanded information on her whereabouts along with a number of major tennis players including Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic.

China has reacted angrily to the attention, particularly after there was sceptical reaction to a series of photographs and videos that appeared to show all was well with the athlete.

The WTA said the recent videos "don't alleviate or address the WTA's concern about her wellbeing and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion".

Days ago, China issued a statement saying "people should stop deliberately and maliciously hyping [the issue] up, let alone politicise this issue."

Reporting by Tessa Wong and BBC Chinese

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