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Martina Navratilova has accused the Australian Open organizers of cowardice and ‘capitulating’ to China over the ban on shirts supporting Peng Shuai.

Video footage on social media showed spectators at Melbourne Park being instructed to remove T-shirts and banners that asked “Where’s Peng Shuai?”

The Chinese player disappeared for weeks after accusing former Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual misconduct in November.

A fan was told to remove his shirt at Melbourne Park

Australian Open security told a fan to remove a ‘Where’s Peng Shuai?’ T-shirt

Peng Shuai (pictured in 2020), a former doubles world number one, is absent from the Grand Slam with fears for her well-being after she alleged online in November that former Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli had

Peng Shuai (pictured in 2020), a former doubles world number one, is absent from the Grand Slam with fears for her well-being after she alleged online in November that former Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli had “forced” her to have sex.

He has since resurfaced, giving a television interview at one point, but concerns remain about his well-being.

Spectators at the first Slam of the year wore the shirts to once again highlight their status, but were told by security to remove them.

Tennis Australia said it did not allow “clothing, banners or signs that are commercial or political”, but added that it was continuing to work with the WTA to seek clarity on Peng’s whereabouts.

But Navratilova, an activist on a variety of social issues, told the Tennis Channel: “Sports have always been at the forefront of social issues, pushing them forward, and I think we’re going backwards.”

One fan was told to take off his shirt.

Security guards and police officers demand viewers remove their 'Where's Peng Shuai?' T-shirts.

On Sunday, footage emerged of security guards and police officers requiring spectators to remove “Where’s Peng Shuai” T-shirts at the Grand Slam over the weekend.

Former player-turned-expert Martina Navratilova criticized Australian Open organizers

Former player-turned-expert Martina Navratilova criticized Australian Open organizers

“We had the problem with Peng Shuai, and now there were fans at the tournament watching Naomi Osaka practice, they weren’t even on the main court, they had ‘Where’s Peng Shuai’ on their jersey and they were told to cover it up.

I find it very, very cowardly. This is not a political declaration, it is a declaration of human rights.

‘To really capitulate on this issue from the Australians and let the Chinese really dictate what they do in their own coup. I just find it very weak.

Navratilova also described the organizers’ stance as “pathetic” in a tweet on Sunday.

It turned out that Tennis Australia, which likes to style the tournament as the Grand Slam of the entire Asia-Pacific region, has a lucrative £53m endorsement deal with Chinese alcohol distillery Luzhou Laojiao.

The fifth main show ground at Melbourne Park is named 1573 Arena after the company’s Guojiao 1573 brand.

Tennis Australia’s statement read: ‘As per our ticket conditions of entry, we do not allow clothing, banners or posters that are commercial or political.

‘Peng Shuai’s safety is our main concern. We continue to work with the WTA and the global tennis community to seek further clarity on her situation and will do all we can to ensure her well-being.”

Video released over the weekend showed two human rights activists, one of them Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Max Mok, being confronted by security personnel in Melbourne Park.

Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai (pictured) disappeared from public view in November after making sexual assault allegations against a high-ranking politician.

Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai (pictured) disappeared from public view in November after making sexual assault allegations against a high-ranking politician.

Since then, a GoFundMe page has been set up and £3,500 has been raised for the printing of more Peng shirts to be handed out to spectators ahead of Saturday’s women’s singles final.

Mok told The Age newspaper: “If Tennis Australia is serious about the move, they will let people in. Time will tell which side they are on.”

In November, Peng posted a 1,600-word message on the Chinese social media platform Weibo alleging that former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli forced her to have sex with him.

The post was quickly deleted and then disappeared from the public eye with mentions of his disappearance from Chinese websites, sparking concern from the global tennis community and human rights groups.

Peng resurfaced several weeks later and in her first interview in December denied making the sexual assault allegations.

France’s Alize Cornet, who was the first player to publicly highlight her concerns regarding Peng, said of the jersey incident: “When I heard that, I was shocked. I think everyone should be able to show their support for Peng Shuai.’

The WTA has taken a strong stance in support of Peng, suspending tournaments in China, which has become its most important market.

Cornet said, “She’s still not quite sure how she’s doing, but I think putting some lights on this story was good for her overall.” Now, of course, we’re all waiting for more details that we don’t have so far, but we’re keeping our fingers crossed.”


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