By Richard Pagliaro from Tennis Now
The WTA Tour is waving the white flag on China.
The WTA will lift its ban on China, initially imposed in December of 2021 in response to China's suppression of Peng Shuai, and return to the nation this season, WTA CEO Steve Simon told BBC.
The Tour initially cut the cord with China and issued a statement calling for a “full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship, into Peng Shuai’s allegation of sexual assault."
Former world No. 1 doubles player Peng Shuai was missing after publicly accusing a Chinese Vice Premier of sexually assaulting her in a social media post on November 2, 2021.
After Peng's allegation and subsequent disappearance became global news, China’s state media issued both images and video of the former Wimbledon doubles champion having dinner and appearing at a local tennis tournament meant to show she is safe. Peng has subsequently done interviews.
The WTA said that did not alleviate concern for her safety and called for a full and transparent investigation into her sexual assault allegations.
The decision to lift the China ban, Simon told BBC's Russell Fuller, is based on the fact the WTA has not made any progress pursuing an investigation with the ban.
"We've been in this for 16 months and we are convinced that at this point our requests will not be met," Steve Simon told BBC Sport. "To continue with the same strategy doesn't make sense and a different approach is needed.
"Hopefully, by returning, more progress can be made."
Clearly, there's a massive financial incentive to return.
The Tour will resume its 10-year pact to host the lucrative season-ending WTA Finals in Shenzhen after runs in Guadalajara and Forth Worth. The WTA Finals Shenzhen will offer a Tour-record $14 million in prize money, the same prize money it paid out before the ban.
Simon said "strong support" from players, player council and WTA board members were key components in the WTA's reversing the ban and insists he is not considering resigning his post.
"No, I would never do that to an organization," Simon told BBC. "It's about leading an organization and listening to its members.
"We have athletes that come from over 80 nations, so there's plenty of different opinions, but the majority of athletes were very supportive of a return back to the region.
"We certainly have some that were not, but the majority - the great majority - were in support and are in support of going back. There was strong support across the members, the [player] council and the board."
The ban began after explosive allegations from Peng Shuai.
In the fall of 2021, Peng Shuai publicly alleged China's former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli "forced" her to have sex at his home after they played tennis together.
The then 35-year-old Peng Shuai alleges she and the 75-year-old Zhang Gaoli had what she’s called an extra-marital “relationship” for several years. The former Wimbledon and Roland Garros doubles champion said he broke off their relationship as he rose higher up the political ranks over fears she would expose. Then, Peng Shuai says, he invited her to his home to play tennis and sexually assaulted her.
Given the gravity of the allegations and Peng Shuai’s safety, the WTA called for a full, transparent investigation into her claims.
It was a powerful and ethical stand in support of Peng Shuai and human rights and it came at quite a cost. It is estimated about 30 percent of the Tour's pre 2021 revenues emanated from its 10 tournaments in China.
The WTA Finals, the Tour's crown jewel and most lucrative tournament, debuted in Shenzhen in 2019 offering a Tour-record $14 million in prize money. The 2021 WTA Finals were staged in Guadalajara, Mexico in 2021 and in Fort Worth, Texas last season.
The Tour's successful expansion into China in recent years was been a boon tapping into an expansive fan base and now it will return, while Peng Shuai's status remains uncertain.