The head of the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) has cast doubt on the validity of an email which Chinese state media says was penned by missing Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai.
Peng, a former Wimbledon and French Open doubles champion and one of China's biggest sports stars, has not been heard from since accusing former Chinese vice premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault on November 2, prompting outrage and concern from the global tennis community.
On Wednesday, Chinese state media outlet CGTN tweeted what it claimed was an email sent by Peng to WTA chief Steve Simon, in which the 35-year-old denies her allegations and claims she is "not missing" or "unsafe."
"The statement released today by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts," said Simon in a written statement.
"I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her."
As of Thursday morning, no other Chinese media outlet had reported the letter besides CGTN, the English-language arm of state broadcaster CCTV.
"The WTA and the rest of the world need independent and verifiable proof that [Peng] is safe," continued Simon, saying he has "repeatedly tried to reach her via numerous forms of communication, to no avail.
"Peng Shuai must be allowed to speak freely, without coercion or intimidation from any source. Her allegation of sexual assault must be respected, investigated with full transparency and without censorship.
"The voices of women need to be heard and respected, not censored nor dictated to."
After they had a consensual temporary affair 10 years ago, Peng alleged in a post on Chinese social media network Weibo that Zhang, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, had tried to coerce her into having sex against her will in his flat in 2018.
"I can't describe how disgusted I was and how many times I wondered if I was still human," she wrote. "I feel like a walking corpse."
The post was deleted a short time later and searches for Peng on Weibo ceased to yield any relevant results. The discussion had been censored and the tennis player's whereabouts remain unknown.
When asked on Thursday morning as to Peng's whereabouts and whether the issue would damage China's image ahead of the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said:
"My answer is very simple. This is not a foreign affairs matter, and I am not aware of the situation you mentioned."
Djokovic adds voice to growing concern
Expressions of concern, outrage and support have come from across the tennis world.
French professional player Alize Cornet has called on Twitter users to speak out for the Chinese player under the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai, sayixng: "We should not be silent."
Former tennis superstars Chris Evert and Billie Jean King also expressed concern about Peng's fate, before men's world number one Novak Djokovic spoke out following his win over Casper Rudd at the ATP Finals on Monday.
"I did hear about it a week ago," wrote the Serbian star. "Honestly, it's shocking that she's missing, more so that it's someone that I have seen on the tour in the previous years quite a few times. There's not much more to say than to hope that she will be found, that she's okay. It's terrible … I can imagine just how her family feels that she's missing."
WTA: 'Investigate allegations without censorship'
The WTA had already sounded the alarm.
"The recent events in China concerning a WTA player, Peng Shuai, are of deep concern," chief Simon said, adding that the Chinese player had shown "remarkable courage."
"We expect this issue to be handled properly, meaning the allegations must be investigated fully, fairly, transparently and without censorship. Our absolute and unwavering priority is the health and safety of our players. We are speaking out so justice can be done."
Former serial champion Martina Navratilova assessed Simon's statement on Twitter as "a very strong stance by WTA — and the correct stance."
In recent years, the WTA has expanded greatly in the Chinese market. In 2019, nine WTA tournaments were held in the country, culminating in the WTA Finals in Shenzhen. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 season finale had been cancelled and moved to Guadalajara in Mexico this year. However, the WTA announced that the prestigious tournament would be staged in Shenzhen again from 2022 to 2030.
Peng Shuai has so far been regarded as China's model tennis player, in whose achievements the leadership in Beijing liked to bask. In 2013, she and her doubles partner Hsieh Su-wei, from Taiwan, won the Grand Slam tournament at Wimbledon, and in 2014 the French Open in Paris.
For 20 weeks, Peng was at the top of the doubles world rankings.