International Tennis Federation officials said today they suspect a professional coach lured away China's top female player, who disappeared during a tournament here.
The ITF said later that it had reason to believe that Hu Na was safe. "A Chinese law firm in San Francisco is acting on behalf of her," the ITF said. "The firm has contacted the State Department and asked it to reassure the Chinese consulate that the girl is safe. We expect to have a meeting with the law firm and officials of the State Department tomorrow."
In San Francisco, a source at the Immigration and Naturalization Service told the San Francisco Examiner the agency had been contacted about granting political asylum to Hu, 19, who vanished during the Federation Cup tennis tournament last week.
A source, who did not want to be identified, told the Associated Press that the contact came from "people claiming to represent" the woman. "They have not come up with an application or anything yet," he said.
The Chinese consul in San Francisco already had appealed to the State Department for help in finding Hu, a native of Szechuan who speaks no English.
"If you find the right coach or agent, you'll probably find the girl," said David Gray, general secretary of the International Tennis Federation.
"It's not unusual for coaches and agents to be at events like this looking for young talent, but this smacks of the slave trade, snatching bodies from other countries," said another official of the federation, who requested anonymity.
Hu was last seen Tuesday night when one of her teammates at the 32-nation tournament saw her, still dressed, reading in bed in their hotel room, Gray said. The teammate fell asleep and when she woke up the next morning Hu was gone. "She left all her baggage behind," Gray said.
The Chinese players returned to Peking on Saturday.
Hu is considered to have world class potential. She won a tournament in Mexico last year and was the only woman selected to accompany a men's team to the United States two years ago.
"The one really disturbing factor about all this," Gray said, "is that the Chinese were just beginning to come back to international play. They were out of international tennis for something like 15 years. When they lose a top player like this, it leaves a very substantial gap, to say the very least.