By - Reuters
By Shrivathsa Sridhar
(Reuters) -The Women's Tennis Association will resume operations in China this year, it said on Thursday, ending a stance taken in 2021 to suspend tournaments in the country due to concerns over the safety of former doubles number one Peng Shuai.
The WTA had received widespread praise for suspending its tournaments in the country after Peng said in a now deleted 2021 social media post that a senior former Chinese government official had sexually assaulted her.
Peng then briefly disappeared from public view and later denied making the accusation, sparking an international outcry over her safety.
The WTA had called for a formal investigation into Peng's allegations by the appropriate authorities and an opportunity to meet with her privately and discuss her situation.
"After 16 months of suspended tennis competition in China and sustained efforts at achieving our original requests, the situation has shown no sign of changing," the governing body of women's tennis said in a statement.
"We have concluded we will never fully secure those goals and it will be our players and tournaments who ultimately will be paying an extraordinary price for their sacrifices."
The WTA's decision to suspend events in China was expected to have cost the tour hundreds of millions of dollars in broadcasting and sponsorship but the losses are difficult to quantify as the timing coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, with many international sporting events cancelled in the country over the past three years.
The decision of the WTA -- which has endured eight-figure losses in 2020 and 2021 but not as much last year -- comes as men's tennis also prepares to return to China later in 2023 after a break due to COVID-19.
China's State Council Information office and the Chinese Tennis Association did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment outside of normal business hours.
World number five Caroline Garcia said the WTA's move was "very important".
"In the past we have had some huge tournaments over there and I think it is an important swing for us in our calendar and I'm looking forward to it," Garcia told the BBC.
RESUME HOSTING DUTIES
The ATP Tour will conduct four tournaments in China in 2023, including the Shanghai Masters, with a total financial commitment of more than $16 million on its Asia swing this year.
The WTA Tour had staged nine tournaments with a total prize purse of $30.4 million in China in 2019, its last full year of operations in the country.
That included the first edition of the WTA Finals in Shenzhen, as part of a 10-year deal. According to a BBC report, Shenzhen will resume hosting duties for the season-ending tournament.
A provisional 2023 tournament calendar released late last year listed events up to September but there was no clarity on events to be held in China and an update is expected soon following Thursday's announcement.
The International Tennis Federation (ITF), which will stage five women's and four men's events in June, welcomed the WTA's statement.
"We have received reassurance that it is safe for players, their families and teams to compete in China so we are pleased to have resumed our events there," the body's president David Haggerty said.
PENG SAFE IN BEIJING
"The WTA's decision is a huge disappointment to the Chinese human rights community," Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Reuters.
"But I'm not surprised, given the money at stake and given the record of how international businesses have behaved in front of the Chinese government. I still want to give WTA some credit for its initial stance."
Peng last made a public appearance at the Beijing Winter Olympics last year and conducted an interview with French publication L'Equipe.
"We have not been able to achieve everything we set out for, but we have been in touch with people close to Peng and are assured she is living safely with her family in Beijing," the WTA said.
(Reporting by Shrivathsa Sridhar in Bengaluru, additional reporting by Brenda Goh and Aadi Nair, editing by Pritha Sarkar)