A crackdown on spectators wearing T-shirts in support of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai at the Australian Open has been overturned after a backlash.
Tennis stars joined in the criticism after footage emerged on Sunday of a woman being intercepted at Melbourne Park wearing a shirt with an image of Peng on the front and the message “Where is Peng Shuai?” on the back.
Peng disappeared from public view for nearly three weeks in November 2021 when she appeared to accuse a former Chinese vice premier, Zhang Gaoli, of sexually assaulting her in the past.
Last month she denied ever accusing anyone of sexual assault and said a social media post she had written had been misunderstood.
Fans now free to wear ‘Where is Peng Shuai?’ T-shirts
Tennis Australia first responded by stating that the clothing breached its rule on “political messaging”.
Fans are free to wear, “Where is Peng Shuai?” shirts at the Australian Open but they must not become “disruptive”, Tennis Australia chief Craig Tiley said on Tuesday amid criticism of its earlier stance on the issue.
“If anyone’s coming on site with the express intent of disrupting the comfort and safety of our fans, they’re not welcome,” he said.
“We can’t sell tickets in advance and have people come in and feel unsafe because there’s a large group of people that are using (the tournament) as a platform to espouse their views on whatever topic it is.”
He added that the security worker was following the tournament’s protocols at the weekend, but following a review, the woman involved in the incident would be invited back to the tournament because she was not trying to cause disruption.
Activists are now reportedly planning to distribute hundreds of “Where is Peng Shuai?” T-shirts in time for Saturday’s Australian Open women’s final.
U-turn on ban welcomed
Tennis great Martina Navratilova and French player Nicolas Mahut had voiced their outrage about the crackdown.
Mahut said the restrictions came as Melbourne Park carried signage for 1573, a Chinese distillery.
“What’s going on!?” What lack of courage! What if you did not have Chinese sponsors #1573. beyond disappointed,” he posted on social media.
Three-time Australian Open singles champion Navratilova had accused the Australian Open of being “cowardly” and “capitulating” to China by preventing fans from wearing T-shirts showing support for Peng.
Responding to the U-turn, Navratilova tweeted: “This is excellent news – well done Australian Open and kudos to Craig Tiley for doing the right thing here!!! #whereisPengShuai”
Tennis Australia: Peng’s safety is our primary concern
Tennis Australia organisers had previously said: “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.”
In a later statement, Tennis Australia said it understood “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 well-being. Our work is ongoing and through the appropriate channels.”