Nine years on from her Wimbledon doubles win… where is Peng Shuai?

It is nine years since the beaming face of Peng Shuai lit up Wimbledon’s Centre Court, where after winning the women’s doubles title with her Taiwanese partner she provided a little insight into her spirit of fun and adventure.

Her partner was Su-wei Hsieh, a childhood friend with whom she had shared everything, including money and clothes, when they were teenagers. They were nicknamed the ‘Crab Duo’, Peng explained, with a smile, because their surnames combine to sound like the Mandarin word for crab.

They had not expected to beat Australia’s Ashleigh Barty and Casey Dellacqua. They played double-handed on both sides because they were too small to hold their rackets with one hand when they were children.

Those were the days of their lives. A French Open title followed the next year, by which time the pair were briefly No 1 in the world. But when they joked about retiring at SW19 — ‘because it doesn’t get any better’ — Peng could not have anticipated how sport would come to an end for her.

She ‘announced’ her departure from the game four months ago, during one of two bizarre interviews which have seemed designed to provide a veneer of legitimacy to the Chinese state’s process of vanishing her.

More than 18 months have passed, now, since China removed Peng from the internet and, effectively, from public life. She had publicly accused a 75-year-old former Communist Party official of sexual assault. The Chinese state’s response to international demands to know her whereabouts says everything about its bloated sense of invincibility.

There was a creepy, stage-managed appearance with the IOC president Thomas Bach who, in a risible attempt to prop up the credibility of the Beijing Winter Olympics, insisted the young woman was fine, having decided not to bring up the question of the sexual assault allegation.

It is nine years since the beaming face of Peng Shuai lit up Wimbledon’s Centre Court

Shuai and Su-wei Hsieh had not expected to beat Ashleigh Barty and Casey Dellacqua

Shuai and Su-wei Hsieh had not expected to beat Ashleigh Barty and Casey Dellacqua

Peng materialised at one Winter Olympics event, but was escorted away and ushered into a waiting private car even before the medal ceremony took place. In February, she appeared for an ‘interview’ with L’Equipe, conducted from a Beijing hotel room where the Chinese Olympic Committee chief of staff, Wang Kan, watched over her from the doorway and translated her answers to pre-agreed questions.

This despite Peng having always comfortably conversed with reporters in English. Peng, who wore Chinese state uniform, announced her retirement. L’Equipe’s journalist Marc Ventouillac says he could not be sure she was safe.

Had Peng been born into a country that affords protection against sexual abuse and allows for criticism of government officials, you imagine she would be back at the scene of her greatest triumph next week. 

She went on to announce her retirement during one of two interviews which may have been designed to provide a veneer of legitimacy to the Chinese state’s process of vanishing her

She went on to announce her retirement during one of two interviews which may have been designed to provide a veneer of legitimacy to the Chinese state’s process of vanishing her 

The 36-year-old was, after all, the first Chinese player to win the WTA Tour Championships (with Hsieh) and only the fifth to win a Grand Slam title. She will not be at Wimbledon, of course, though some members of the tennis fraternity seem more concerned about that than others.

The WTA took the bold and creditable decision to pull out of China over fears for her, despite the financial hit they would take. But at this year’s Australian Open, activists in the ‘Where is Peng Shuai?’ T-shirts had their clothing confiscated by security guards, before a public outcry forced the tournament director to back-track.

We were reminded on Wednesday that the All England club is relaxed about taking China’s money, no questions asked, when they hosted an event to heap acclaim on Chinese company OPPO, the tournament’s ‘Official Smartphone Partner’.

At the Australian Open, fans wore 'where is Peng Shuai' t-shirts in support of the tennis star

At the Australian Open, fans wore ‘where is Peng Shuai’ t-shirts in support of the tennis star

More than 18 months have passed, now, since China removed Peng from the internet and, effectively, from public life

More than 18 months have passed, now, since China removed Peng from the internet and, effectively, from public life 

If there was a genuine concern for Peng, with whom the WTA has still had no contact, Wimbledon could have passed on that egregious sponsorship deal. OPPO has been integral to the Chinese state’s push to bolster its own reputation in the global microchip sector.

Needless to say Ian Hewitt, chairman of the All England Club, does not see a contradiction in partnering an icon of the progressive nation China would like us to consider it to be, while correctly deeming any player from Russia persona non grata.

On that golden July day in 2013, there was a brief moment of awkwardness when the question of Peng partnering a Taiwanese, whose country China does not recognise, cropped up after the final. The Taiwanese China Post’s report the following day claims Peng replied to say she did not believe that Taiwan was a country.

Shuai, the Chinese tennis player who had accused a senior politician of rape, sat down for an interview with foreign media in Beijing - with Chinese officials visible in the room

Shuai, the Chinese tennis player who had accused a senior politician of rape, sat down for an interview with foreign media in Beijing – with Chinese officials visible in the room

If the report was accurate, it suggests that Peng’s loyalty to her nation surpassed even her friendship with Hsieh, though for the Chinese state, that counted for nothing.

Meanwhile, a grainy video purporting to show Peng at a junior event last weekend has been circulated by Chinese state media.

You would certainly hope that All England Club rules banning any ‘objects or clothing’ which carry ‘political statements’ do not prevent many bringing the joyful 2013 champion to mind at Wimbledon, in the next two weeks. ‘Where is Peng Shuai?’ Nobody knows.

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk

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