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Tennis Australia changes stance on Peng Shuai support, will allow messages on shirts

Peng Shuai accused a former senior Chinese official of sexual assault last fall. She later said she was misunderstood. (Andy Brownbill/AP)
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In a change of stance regarding certain demonstrations of support for Peng Shuai, the head of Tennis Australia said Tuesday that shirts bearing statements about the Chinese athlete will be allowed at the Australian Open.

On Saturday, fans at the Grand Slam tournament were asked by security staffers to remove T-shirts bearing the words “Where is Peng Shuai?” in reference to uncertainty surrounding the women’s player.

Tennis Australia, the tournament’s organizer, expressed support for Peng, who accused a former senior Chinese official of sexual assault last fall, but said Monday the material violated rules aimed at keeping political and commercial statements away from Melbourne Park, the site of the tournament.

On Tuesday, Tennis Australia chief executive Craig Tiley clarified that a pro-Peng banner displayed by fans was specifically at issue.

“We’ve said that if anyone comes on-site with an intent to disrupt and use the Australian Open as a platform for themselves and really disrupts the comfort and the safety of our fans, then they’re not welcome,” Tiley told the Sydney Morning Herald.

“However, if someone wants to wear a T-shirt and make a statement about Peng Shuai, that’s fine.

“But what’s not fine,” he continued, “[is] if that someone brings in a big banner, and it’s got big poles attached to it and it’s used as something [which is dangerous], it really takes away from the comfort and safety of the fans.”

A Tennis Australia spokesperson had previously told multiple outlets that in keeping with the tournament’s conditions of entry for ticketed patrons, “we don’t allow clothing, banners or signs that are commercial or political.”

“Peng Shuai’s safety is our primary concern,” the spokesperson said then. “We continue to work with the [Women’s Tennis Association] and global tennis community to seek more clarity on her situation and will do everything we can to ensure her well-being.

Drew Pavlou, a Queensland-based Australian Senate candidate, had tweeted video of actor Max Mok and another spectator being confronted by Tennis Australia and Victoria police Saturday. They were asking them to remove T-shirts that featured a photo of Peng and the word “Wanted” on the front and “Where is Peng Shuai?” on the back.

An officer can be seen in the video holding a banner bearing the same message and saying, “Tennis Australia does set the rules, and regardless of what you’re saying — and I’m not saying you can’t have those views — but I am saying that Tennis Australia sets the rules here.”

One of the Open’s major partners is Guojiao 1573, a Chinese liquor, and Tennis Australia has had little comment on Peng, who disappeared from public view for nearly three months after she alleged on social media that Zhang Gaoli, the former vice premier, had sexually assaulted her. China’s heavily censored Internet quickly deleted the post.

In support, Steve Simon, chairman and chief executive of the WTA, announced that it would hold no tournaments in China this year, with Simon saying it would make the costly decision to put “principles ahead of profit.”

Last month, Peng posted a video in which she said she had been misunderstood and is “very free.”

What you need to know about the case of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai

“I have never said or written that anyone has sexually assaulted me. I have to stress this point,” Peng told a reporter from Singapore’s Lianhe Zaobao newspaper, in her first direct comments to journalists since she posted explosive claims in November and disappeared from public view, emerging only in carefully curated appearances amplified by Chinese state outlets.

“People seemed to have made a lot of misinterpretations,” she said, confirming for the first time the authenticity of the post on her Weibo profile, and appearing to laugh off the controversy. In the short video interview, she referred to the contents of the statement as “a private matter.”

When tennis star Peng Shuai disappeared after accusing a former senior Chinese official of sexual assault, global outrage put a spotlight on the Winter Games. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

Last week, Yao Ming, the former NBA star, said he and Chinese sports figures had “a pleasant chat” when they visited with Peng in December, posing for photos that were posted on social media in what appeared to be a campaign in response to international demands that Peng be allowed to talk freely. He added that he has known Peng for about 20 years.

Victoria Azarenka, a member of the WTA Players Council, told reporters last week that the group had not heard directly from Peng, who was formerly ranked 14th in the world in singles and was part of a doubles team once ranked No. 1.

“There hasn’t been that much development in terms of contact with Peng Shuai even though from our side we will continue to make any and all efforts to make sure that she is safe, she feels comfortable,” Azarenka said. “Hopefully we will get to hear from her personally at some point. I think that’s the goal, the main goal right now.”

Mok and Pavlou raised nearly $7,000 after the incident, according to the Age, and plan to use the money to print T-shirts to distribute before the Australian Open women’s final despite the ban.

“Regardless, it will be a good message to send not just to Australia but internationally,” Mok said. “Imagine a whole court filled with ‘Free Peng Shuai’ shirts?”

“It’s all been a bit lost in translation from some people who are not here and don’t really know the full view,” Tiley told ESPN on Tuesday of the viral footage of fans’ interaction with Australian Open security. “The situation in the last couple of days is that some people came with a banner on two large poles and we can’t allow that.

“If you are coming to watch the tennis, that’s fine, but we can’t allow anyone to cause a disruption at the end of the day.”