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Mailbag: The Tennis Community Has Been Steadfast in Response to the Peng Shuai Case

From WTA CEO Steve Simon to Naomi Osaka, the sport's top figures have taken a stand and demanded answers about the former Chinese player.

Hey everyone, lots of discussion about the Peng Shuai situation, which, of course, is fluid. I will try and address in bullet points.

• FWIW, here’s a Tennis Channel interview we did with Steve Simon last Friday.

• Simon is, quite rightly, being praised for his conviction and principles and backbone. (That this differentiates him from other leaders—inside and outside sports—is a discussion for another time.) I would add, though, that tennis as a whole is to be commended. One reason for Simon’s uncommonly firm and unwavering stand: He is fully supported within tennis. The players are behind him. The WTA board is, largely, behind him. Agents are behind him. Fans are behind him. The media is behind him. From Naomi Osaka’s statement mentioning the third rail of censorship to Nicolas Mahut calling out the IOC and Thomas Bach to the legends lining up, tennis gets high marks here. Whatever the NBA’s garbled, invertebrate response to China was in 2019, this is something altogether braver.

• Let’s put China in perspective. The Uyghur detention is the largest detention since Nazi concentration camps. China spends more money on internal surveillance than on its military. We are seeing a vivid example of “The Great Firewall” and high-tech censorship. This is a country that resists calls from the international community to stop various human rights abuses and suppression and crackdown on dissent and a free press. It is, at best, fanciful to think that, suddenly, it will comply with the WTA’s calls for a “full and fair” #metoo investigation on a former party leader. Provided the situation does not change dramatically …

• The WTA needs to cut bait on this whole China strategy. There’s now only one way the WTA loses here: if it capitulates, puts profit before principle and stays in a country whose values are inconsistent with the WTA and that has caused alleged harm to a member. This over-dependence on China was always dubious. (Credit: Tumaini Carayol for this piece in 2019 presaging trouble.) Then, the Tour held its nose and took the money—and paid management groups a nice fee. Now, playing under these conditions, is indefensible.

• Some relevant history here. Earlier in her career, Peng Shuai caused a stir when she effectively resigned from the Chinese Tennis Federation. She was upset with the way the CTA was dictating her playing schedule and telling her what tournaments she could play and assigning her coaches without her input. As a Chinese-based source wrote to me at the time, “In the West, it would be normal for the athlete to just walk away from the federation but in China, a very rare situation. But the CTA backed away after some very ugly PR moves backfired (the CTA head tried to make Peng look bad in the media but the Internet was full of fury for the top CTA official).”

• Why is this relevant? A) There is a history of admirable dissent here. B) The notion that Peng would write a 1,000-word cri de coeur about a sexual assault and then promptly renounce it, as the China state-run media would have you believe … it's suspicious-to-the-point-of-risible on so many levels, but, not least, it would be widely out of character for Peng.

• Both the ATP and WTA were built for flexibility. Steffi Graf and Boris Becker trigger a tennis boom in Germany? Great, move events there. There are currently tournaments in Basel, Belgrade and Mallorca. With COVID-19, we saw how nimble the sport can be. The WTA will take a financial hit for leaving China, but other markets will emerge and help make up the shortfall.

• This was once a dirty secret, and now it’s an open secret: Most players have little use for China. They don’t like playing there. They don’t like playing in front of empty seats. They don’t like the air quality and the commutes and the unseemliness of feeling like mercenaries. Ask them and they will tell you they would rather play for 50 cents in Guadalajara—or Europe—than for a dollar in Shenzhen.

• It bears stressing here. This is a repudiation of the China regime—about authoritarianism, censorship, rejecting women’s rights, rejecting human rights, rejecting democracy—not the Chinese people. We’ve seen the good that comes from sports and women’s sports especially. We’ve seen the inspiration provided by WTA players starting with Li Na. We’ve seen, too, why the WTA would want to avail itself to an economic powerhouse with 1.4 billon potential consumers. But the WTA can’t do business where its players aren’t safe. Where its leaders are ignored. Where transparency is mocked.

Mailbag

Hi Jon. Couldn’t agree more that the WTA needs to ask itself, what does it stand for? But while we’re on the topic, shouldn’t the ATP ask the same question?
Yves, Montreal

• For that matter, we should all be asking ourselves what we stand for. The ATP should also be considering (and reconsidering) its relationship with China. Two surface differences. There is not a recent ATP player caught directly in the crosshairs of China’s autocracy, its censorship, its snuffing out of dissent. The ATP isn’t quite so heavily invested in China and in need of a portfolio rebalance. (The WTA made a big bet on China. There are more events there than in any other country.) But yes, your serve, ATP.

Is Novak Djokovic really not going to play the Australian Open because he doesn’t want to get vaccinated?
J.J., Beverly Hills

• What a pity that we are even having this discussion. As I see it, he’s already lost. Either he sticks with his self-styled independent thinking and misses a prime opportunity to win a 21st major, or he is known as the guy who spreads this woo-woo (at the most charitable: He is ambivalent about science) but then backs down when personal gain is on the line.

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Inevitably, the Roger Federer crowd is outraged. Their man is desperate to outwit Father Time and play again; Djokovic, meanwhile, is potentially missing majors by his own choosing. I get that. But leaving Federer out of it, why does Djokovic want to be that guy? Why, at age 34, would he want to tempt fate by sitting out majors not because his body makes him, but because he chooses to? Why is he so sure Roland Garros and Wimbledon won’t follow Australia’s lead?

I always hate that you downplay the importance of the World Tour Finals, just because it comes at the end of the year. Like Djoker and Fed’s many titles there mean less.
@cmt2160

• I have no great objection. Here are some issues I do have:

a) The round-robin is a distortion. At every other event, players compete with a lose-or-go-home mentality. At this event, there’s an element of gaming. (Sidebar: Is there a statistical distortion about an event at which the entire field resides in the top 10? When does tennis start norming for quality of opponent? When the field consists entirely of the top 10 players, doesn’t it stand to reason that, for instance, your ace count or conversion of break points will be lower?)

b) Necessarily, a year-end soirée occurs as a culmination to a season. You get this sense of climax. You also get exhausted athletes, running on fumes, physically compromised, eying vacation. (And, tennis being tennis, cautious about beating themselves up for the next Major that starts in less than two months.) Half the field in Turin was carrying a physical injury.

c) There are all sorts of considerations here. Contractual. Weather. Daylight hours. But it’s … something. Strange? Incongruous? Anticlimactic. Anti-climatic … to play a year-end event on a surface used for zero major championships.

d) There isn’t a ton of predictive value here. No member of the Big Three has won the ATP Final since 2015. And only one winner (Medvedev in '21) won a major the previous year.

Jon, Congratulations to Garbiñe Muguruza on another major title and impressive that all her victories were straight sets over the world's top players. However, am I the only one that found her rise in the rankings this year as very under the radar? Part of it I'm sure is it's been overshadowed by Osaka, Krejčíková, the teenagers at the U.S. Open. However, another part is that for a Grand Slam champion, Muguruza had a very mediocre run at the Grand Slams this year: Two R16 performances were her best. Does this say more about over all consistency in a year that was up and down for many players? And what do you see as far as this title with confidence in '22 as far as adding more Grand Slam titles (with the Australian Open two years she has proved when on she can be a threat on all surfaces)?
Bob Richter, Green Bay

• Muguruza is one of tennis’s great mysteries. Here is a player so athletic and talented with Hall of Fame credentials. When you are ready to pronounce her the next titan, she retreats. When you are ready to dismiss her as a player unwilling or unable to fulfill her commodious potential, she wins big titles. Guadalajara was her career in miniature. She lost her match 7–6 in the third, a potentially deflating defeat. She wins her next match—a grudge match; beef as the main course—against Krejčíková 6–4 in the third. And she doesn’t lose another set. She finishes the year on an upswing. She finishes the year at No. 3. And, as Bob notes, she does this without having made it beyond the fourth round of any major.

I wish I could remember where I saw this. Courtney, perhaps. But Mugu has won 10 titles. One was the French, one was Wimbledon. The others were on hard courts.

An Olympic gold medal, another doubles Slam title, the year-end doubles championship, a mixed-doubles slam, the French Open in singles, a top-five ranking, matching or surpassing her best result at each slam in singles—whew! Krejčíková has had a LOT of reasons to celebrate this year, not least of which is transforming from "terrific doubles player" into a likely HoF career.
Chris Brown

• More than 100 matches played. A top-five ranking in singles AND doubles. Olympic gold. A single major, yes, but 38 other wins. This moving speech. Hope she’s on a beach … or the bottom of a bottle of Makers Mark.

HAPPY THANKSGIVING EVERYONE!

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