Where is Peng Shuai? Australian Open t-shirts command attention
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Even as he was kicked out of the Australian Open for wearing a white T-shirt with a “Where’s Peng Shuai?” slogan in black letters, Max Mok saw it as an opportunity to amplify the message of concern from the Grand Slam doubles champion and Chinese Olympian whose well-being is in question.
Mok’s plan: He will help hand out 1,000 of the shirts on Saturday to spectators watching the women’s final between No. 1-ranked Australian Ash Barty and American Danielle Collins.
Yes, it’s the biggest tennis match of 2022 yet, but someone, far from Melbourne Park, is in the hearts and minds of players, fans and the WTA, the organization that runs the women’s professional circuit.
“We have seen members of the tennis community supporting Peng Shuai – Naomi Osaka, namely, and many others including Serena Williams,” Mok, a Chinese-Australian, said in an interview with The Associated. Press Friday as he unpacked the boxes of the shirts. “It’s a good opportunity to go to the biggest event in tennis in a while and force (watch out).”
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Peng, the former No.1-ranked doubles player who won Wimbledon and French Open titles, disappeared from public view in November after accusing a former senior Chinese government official, the deputy prime minister Zhang Gaoli, of sexual assault.
Concerns over Peng’s censorship and subsequent disappearance from public view led the WTA to suspend all of its tournaments in China, including the end-of-season championships. The tour manager has repeatedly called on China to investigate the 35-year-old Peng’s accusations and allow the WTA to communicate directly with her.
“We’re all behind her. Everyone wants to hear from her and see that she’s doing really well,” said Tatjana Maria, a 34-year-old German who competed in singles and doubles at Melbourne Park. “That’s what’s most important – that she’s fine and that she’s fine. … It’s the WTA who have to put pressure (on) China to try to get some news.”
Naomi Osaka, the former No. 1 singles player who won the Australian Open in 2019 and 2021, was repeatedly asked about Peng last week.
“I haven’t heard any news. I don’t know if it’s worrying or not,” Osaka said. “But I think the WTA, the whole organization, they handled it really well. I’m really proud of them.”
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Adding to the heightened attention on Peng’s case: Beijing is hosting the Winter Olympics from Feb. 4. IOC President Thomas Bach sought to ensure Peng was okay by saying he had spoken to him via video.
“It’s a very, very serious problem, obviously. Do I really think that the fact that we keep talking about it is really going to bring a lot of change in China? I mean, China is going to do what China going to do,” said Robin Anderson, a 28-year-old American who lost in the first round of the Australian Open last week. “But it’s important for us to keep talking about it and at least keep trying to put pressure on them.”
Mok and fellow Australian human rights activist Drew Pavlou hoped to do just that at the first Grand Slam tournament of the season. They raised over 20,000 Australian dollars (about $15,000) to make the shirts they distribute.
Mok was one of three people – the other two are Chinese nationals – kicking off the tournament last weekend for wearing shirts with “Where’s Peng Shuai?” printed on it, with the aim of encouraging players to express themselves. Citing tournament rules prohibiting “political messaging”, security and police told the trio they had to take off their shirts or leave. So they left.
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Footage from the episode went viral and drew widespread condemnation, including from International Tennis Hall of Famer Martina Navratilova.
“It was never planned. It was a coincidence,” Mok said of a small gesture of activism that got a lot of attention.
A few days later, Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley told The Associated Press that the rules had been revised, allowing shirts to be worn at Melbourne Park – as long as people don’t. do not congregate in large groups or cause problems for other spectators.
“If they want to do that, that’s fine,” Tiley said. But “if someone comes on site with the express intention of disturbing the comfort and safety of our fans, they are not welcome”.
Pavlou called the way the initial confrontation was handled an example of censorship and intimidation, which “prompted us to commit to doubling down and getting those 1,000 T-shirts out.”
“They couldn’t kick 1,000 out of the final,” he said of Tennis Australia.
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Pavlou hopes the Australian Open campaign will continue at the Olympics, even though athletes traveling to Beijing have been urged by human rights campaigners to avoid criticizing China because they could be prosecuted.
Either way, Mok and Pavlou believe they’ve managed to make a statement in Australia – a statement that could be carried around the world by television cameras during Saturday’s final.
“The tennis community has come together. Obviously we’re all looking out for her safety. We all hope she’s okay. We hope she’s okay,” Barty said. “I hope it’s not too long before I see her here again.”
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