Tennis legend Martina Navratilova called a decision by Australian Open organisers to prevent fans wearing “Where is Peng Shuai?” t-shirts “pathetic”, but organisers refused to back down from their controversial stance Monday.
Video emerged on Sunday of security staff ordering spectators to remove shirts and a banner in support of the Chinese player at Melbourne Park.
The former doubles world number one is absent from the Grand Slam and there are fears for her wellbeing after she alleged online in November that she had been “forced” into sex by a Chinese former vice-premier during a years-long on-and-off relationship.
Her allegation was quickly censored and the 36-year-old was not heard from for nearly three weeks, before reappearing in public in China. But there are still concerns as to whether she is really free.
“That’s just pathetic. The @wta stands pretty much alone on this!!!” 18-time Grand Slam winner Navratilova tweeted Sunday on the t-shirt ban, using the hashtag #WhereisPengShuai.
The Women’s Tennis Association has been widely praised for its stance on Peng, demanding to hear from her directly and suspending tournaments in China.
Leading players at the Australian Open have on several occasions said they still hope to hear directly from Peng so they can be assured of her safety.
Tennis Australia, which organises the Australian Open, reiterated on Monday that “Peng Shuai’s safety is our primary concern”.
But it refused to budge on “not allowing banners, signs or clothing that are commercial or political” and that the longstanding policy “will continue to be applied in relation to any items that compromise the safety and comfort of AO fans”.
“We understand and appreciate that people have strongly held personal and political views on a range of issues,” a spokesperson added.
“We continue to work with the WTA and the global tennis community to do everything we can to ensure her (Peng’s) well-being. Our work is ongoing and through the appropriate channels.
“Today we have again reiterated our strong support to the WTA and we extend this to all the players.”
French player Nicolas Mahut, who was knocked out of the doubles in the first round at Melbourne, suggested on Twitter that organisers were bowing to corporate sponsorship from China.
“What’s going on!? What lack of courage! What if you did not have Chinese sponsors,” he wrote.
Chinese distillery Luzhou Laojiao is one of the Australian Open’s leading sponsors.
A GoFundMe page set up to raise money to print more T-shirts reached its Aus$10,000 (US$7,100) goal within two days, with activists pledging to make them available to whoever wants to wear them.
“We’re printing 1,000 t-shirts and we can see how many match-goers that they can stop,” activist Max Mok told broadcaster ABC.
Asked about the issue at its daily press conference, China’s Foreign Ministry said it “has always opposed the politization of sports, which is unpopular and will not succeed”.