TA 'capitulating' to China: Navratilova

Tennis Australia has been accused of ignoring a human rights issue involving China's Peng Shuai.
Tennis Australia has been accused of ignoring a human rights issue involving China's Peng Shuai.

Tennis Australia has defended its decision to prevent fans from wearing shirts bearing messages of support for Chinese doubles player Peng Shuai at Melbourne Park despite fierce criticism from Martina Navratilova.

Navratilova says Australian Open organisers had acted "cowardly" after video emerged of security officials and police instructing spectators on Saturday to remove shirts with the slogan, "Where is Peng Shuai?" on them.

While TA on Monday night issued a statement saying "Peng Shuai's safety is our primary concern", the governing body defended its stance because the tournament does not allow political statements.

"Under our ticket conditions of entry we don't allow clothing, banners or signs that are commercial or political," TA said.

TA's position dismayed 18-times grand slam winner Navratilova, who said they were "capitulating" to China and placing sponsorship money ahead of human rights concerns.

"I find it really, really cowardly," Navratilova told the US-based Tennis Channel.

"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."

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.

After that post, she was absent from public view for nearly three weeks.

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 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 1000 "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 ABC Radio.

TA said in a second statement: "We understand and appreciate that people have strongly held personal and political views on a range of issues.

"Peng Shuai's safety is our primary concern.

"We continue to work with the WTA and the global tennis community to do everything we can to ensure her wellbeing.

"Our work is ongoing and through the appropriate channels. Today we have again reiterated our strong support to the WTA and we extend this to all the players.

"To ensure that the Australian Open remains a welcoming, safe and inclusive event for everyone, we have a longstanding policy of not allowing banners, signs or clothing that are commercial or political.

"On this occasion, the security guard was simply enforcing this policy and while we have reviewed this and are happy to welcome the patron back to Melbourne Park, the policy will continue to be applied in relation to any items that compromise the safety and comfort of AO fans."

France's Alize Cornet, who was the first player to publicly highlight her concerns regarding Peng, said of the T-shirt incident: "When I heard that, I was surprised. I think that everybody should be able to manifest their support to Peng Shuai.

"It's still very unsure how she's doing but I think the fact to put some lights on this story was good for her overall.

"Now we are of course all waiting for more details that we don't have so far, but we keep our fingers crossed."

- with Reuters and PA

Australian Associated Press