The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) on Wednesday announced the immediate suspension of all tournaments in China due to concerns about the well-being of former doubles world number one Peng Shuai and the safety of other players.
The US-headquartered tour's decision to walk away from one of its biggest markets was applauded by many leading figures in the tennis world but could cost the WTA hundreds of millions of dollars in broadcasting and sponsorship revenue.
Peng's whereabouts became a matter of international concern following a nearly three-week public absence after she posted a message on social media in early November, alleging that China's former Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli had sexually assaulted her.
Neither Zhang, who retired in 2018, nor the Chinese government have commented on Peng's allegation and the topic has been blocked from direct discussion on China's heavily censored internet.
"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," WTA chief executive Steve Simon said in a statement.
"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."
China's foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment and calls to the organisers of the China Open tournament went unanswered.
The ministry said late last month that "certain people" should stop the "malicious hyping" and "politicization" of the Peng issue.
The decision comes as Beijing is preparing to host the Winter Olympics next February. Global rights groups and others have called for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics over China's human rights record.
Peng did appear in mid-November at a dinner with friends and a children's tennis tournament in Beijing, photographs and videos published by Chinese state media and by the tournament's organisers showed.
On November 21, IOC President Thomas Bach had a 30-minute video call with Peng, who competed at three Olympics, during which she told him she was safe.
But Simon, who said the decision to suspend tournaments in China had the full support of the WTA Board of Directors, said they were not convinced all was well with Peng.
"While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe, and not subject to censorship, coercion, and intimidation," said Simon.
"The WTA has been clear on what is needed here, and we repeat our call for a full and transparent investigation -- without censorship -- into Peng Shuai's sexual assault accusation."
Simon said the Peng situation demanded a response.
"If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug, then the basis on which the WTA was founded – equality for women – would suffer an immense setback. I will not and cannot let that happen," he added.
'RIGHT SIDE OF HISTORY'
Tennis great and founder of the WTA Billie Jean King was among those who applauded the announcement.
"The WTA has chosen to be on the right side of history in defending the rights of our players," King said in a statement.
"This is yet another reason why women's tennis is the leader in women's sports."
Martina Navratilova also signalled her support on Twitter, suggesting the IOC "take note".
Men's world number one Novak Djokovic, who recently co-founded a players' union aiming to represent both male and female professionals, also backed the move.
"I support fully WTA's stance because we don't have enough information about Shuai Peng and her well-being," the Serbian said after a Davis Cup tie in Madrid.
"It's life of a tennis player that is in question here, so we, as the tennis community, need to stand together."
The United States Tennis Association commended the WTA.
"This type of leadership is courageous and what is needed to ensure the rights of all individuals are protected and all voices are heard," the body said in a statement.
The International Tennis Federation (ITF) and men's Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
China's ambassador to Cuba, Ma Hui, responded on Twitter with a single word.
"Posturing?" he wrote.
Simon had previously said the WTA would shut down its operations in China if it was not satisfied with the response to the allegations.
The WTA began an aggressive expansion into China on the eve of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and local interest in the sport was fuelled by Li Na winning the 2011 French Open.
China hosted just two WTA events in 2008 but 11 years later was staging nine, including the WTA Tour finals which were secured in a 10-year deal by the city of Shenzhen in 2018.
In 2015, the WTA announced a 10-year digital rights deal with Chinese streaming platform iQiyi reportedly worth $120 million.
The pandemic forced the cancellation of all but one of the WTA events in China in 2020 and 2021, including this year's Tour Finals which were moved to Mexico.
The 2022 tour calendar has not yet been published.
"Unless China takes the steps we have asked for, we cannot put our players and staff at risk by holding events in China," Simon said on Wednesday.
"China's leaders have left the WTA with no choice. I remain hopeful that our pleas will be heard and the Chinese authorities will take steps to legitimately address this issue."