Navratilova says Tennis Australia 'capitulating' to China over Peng

Martina Navratilova said Australian Open organisers had acted "cowardly" by preventing fans from wearing shirts bearing messages of support for Chinese doubles player Peng Shuai at the Grand Slam event.

Martina Navratilova said Tennis Australia 'capitulating' to China over Peng Shuai.   -  Getty Images

Martina Navratilova said Australian Open organisers had acted "cowardly" by preventing fans from wearing shirts bearing messages of support for Chinese doubles player Peng Shuai at the Grand Slam event.

After video emerged of security officials and police instructing fans on Saturday to remove shirts with the slogan, "Where is Peng Shuai?" on them, Tennis Australia (TA) defended its stance by saying the tournament does not allow political statements.

TA's position dismayed 18-times Grand Slam winner Navratilova, who said the national governing body was giving in to China and placing sponsorship money ahead of human rights concerns.

"I find it really, really cowardly," she said on the U.S.-based Tennis Channel.

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"I think they are wrong on this. This is not a political statement, this is a human rights statement.

"(Tennis Australia is) just really capitulating on this issue ... letting the Chinese really dictate what they do at their own Slam. I just find it really weak."

Tennis Australia reiterated its stance on Monday, adding that Peng's safety remained its "primary concern".

"We continue to work with the WTA (Women's Tennis Association) and the global tennis community to do everything we can to ensure (Peng's) well-being. Our work is ongoing and through the appropriate channels," a spokesperson said in a statement to Reuters.

Peng's well-being became a matter of concern among the global tennis community in November when she appeared to allege that a former Chinese vice premier, Zhang Gaoli, had sexually assaulted her in the past. After that post, she was absent from public view for nearly three weeks.

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Last month she said she had never accused anyone of sexually assaulting her, and that a social media post she had made had been misunderstood.

The WTA suspended tournaments in China due to what its concerns over Peng's safety.

French player Nicolas Mahut also slammed TA's response, tweeting: "What lack of courage! What if you did not have Chinese sponsors."

Baijiu distillery Luzhu Laojiao is a sponsor of the event.

On Monday, Peng supporters in Australia said they were planning to hand out 1,000 "Where is Peng Shuai?" T-shirts at Melbourne Park this week after raising more than $10,000 on a GoFundMe page.

"We can see how many match-goers that they can stop," activist Max Mok told Australian ABC Radio.

TA said security officials will continue to enforce its policy at Melbourne Park.

"The policy will continue to be applied in relation to any items that compromise the safety and comfort of AO fans," the organisers said.

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