Men’s tennis was facing a major player revolt on Thursday night after failing to join the women’s game in suspending all tournaments in China over the plight of Peng Shuai.
The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and International Tennis Federation (ITF) were condemned for not following the lead of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), which carried out its threat to pull out of the country after being shown “insufficient evidence” Peng was safe.
Wednesday’s decision had piled pressure on the ATP and ITF to show solidarity with their sister organisation but they failed to do so, with the men’s tour even arguing that a “global presence” gave it a better chance of having “a positive influence on society”.
The statement by Andrea Gaudenzi, the ATP’s chairman, was denounced and even mocked, with Tennys Sandgren – who had called for men’s players to “back the ladies up” – posting on Twitter: “This is p— #firegaudenzi.”
Noah Rubin branded the statement “weak”, Dustin Brown wrote “A Lot Of Words, But Not Really Saying Anything… Been The Standard Lately…”, while Reilly Opelka sarcastically called it “POWERFUL”.
The ITF also failed to pull out of China, despite reiterating its call for the country to address Peng’s claims she had been sexually assaulted by its former vice-premier, Zhang Gaoli.
Julian Knight MP, the chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media & Sport select committee told Telegraph Sport: “This looks to the outside world like the ATP and ITF are gutless.
“This is a crucial moment for the sport, whether or not the dollar sign is more important than solidarity and integrity in the game. I hope that leading tennis players around the world will put pressure on the ATP and ITF to follow the example of the WTA.”
Despite not joining the WTA’s China boycott, Gaudenzi said Peng’s plight had raised “serious concerns” and that the response to them had “fallen short”.
“We again urge for a line of open direct communication between the player and the WTA in order to establish a clearer picture of her situation,” he added.
“We will continue to consult with our members and monitor any developments as this issue evolves.”
The ITF said: “Our primary concern remains Peng Shuai’s wellbeing. The allegations Peng made must be addressed. We will continue to support all efforts being made to that end, both publicly and behind the scenes.”
Knight also attacked the “lacklustre” response from the IOC to what has become a major diplomatic row after it announced it had held a second video call with her on Wednesday but made no mention of her sexual assault claims.
Tom Tugendhat MP, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs select committee and the China Research Group, called on the Government to announce a diplomatic boycott of next year’s Winter Games in Beijing.
“The WTA is right to stand up for the rights of athletes,” he said. “I hope that the Government will follow this example and withhold any diplomatic representation from the 2022 Winter Olympics. Sport cannot be used to mask human rights abuses.”
Peng’s former doubles partner, Andrea Sestini Hlavackova, told Deutsche Welle it was “shocking” the IOC had not done more to ensure Peng was free to speak of her own accord.
She added: “It’s really crazy to me that the IOC is putting it under the rug like, ‘It’s okay, she’s fine’, when they clearly know she’s not.”
The WTA’s decision to cease operations in China saw the outspoken editor of a state newspaper there accuse the association of “coercing” athlete Peng “to support the West’s attack” on the country.
Hu Xijin, editor of the Communist Party mouthpiece the Global Times, also posted a long statement that declared the WTA “acted as a lever of Western public opinion against China’s political system”.
“Such coercion has deprived Peng of freedom of expression…fabricating that she has lost her freedom,” the statement said.
The Global Times also posted on Twitter that the Chinese Tennis Association “expresses its indignation and firm opposition” to the WTA’s decision.
Hu, known for his combative tweets, posted saying that “some forces in the West are instigating a boycott against the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics,” alleging that the WTA was somehow part of a wider campaign.
The statement ended with a warning: “They are opening a Pandora’s box. They are betrayers of the Olympics spirit.”