Tennis legend Martina Navratilova Monday called a decision by Australian Open organisers to prevent fans wearing “Where is Peng Shuai?” t-shirts “pathetic” as activists pledged to hand them out en masse.
Tournament organisers on Sunday said Peng’s safety was “our primary concern” after video emerged of security staff appearing to order spectators to remove shirts and a banner in support of the Chinese player.
The former doubles world number one is absent from the Grand Slam and there are fears for her wellbeing after she alleged online in November that she had been “forced” into sex by a Chinese former vice-premier during a years-long on-and-off relationship.
Her allegation was quickly censored and the 36-year-old was not heard from for nearly three weeks, before reappearing in public in China. But there are still concerns as to whether she is really free.
“That’s just pathetic. The @wta stands pretty much alone on this!!!” 18-time Grand Slam winner Navratilova tweeted on the t-shirt ban, using the hashtag #WhereisPengShuai.
The Women’s Tennis Association has been widely praised for its stance on Peng, demanding to hear from her directly and suspending tournaments in China.
Leading players at the Australian Open have on several occasions said they still hope to hear directly from Peng so they can be assured of her safety.
French player Nicolas Mahut, who was knocked out of the doubles in the first round at Melbourne, suggested on Twitter that organisers were bowing to corporate sponsorship from China.
“What’s going on!? What lack of courage! What if you did not have Chinese sponsors,” he wrote.
Chinese distillery Luzhou Laojiao is one of the Australian Open’s leading sponsors.
Tennis Australia said on Sunday that under its ticket conditions “we don’t allow clothing, banners or signs that are commercial or political”.
“Peng Shuai’s safety is our primary concern,” a spokesperson added.
“We continue to work with the WTA and global tennis community to seek more clarity on her situation and will do everything we can to ensure her wellbeing.”
A GoFundMe page set up to raise money to print more T-shirts reached its Aus$10,000 (US$7,100) goal within two days.
“We’re printing 1,000 t-shirts and we can see how many match-goers that they can stop,” activist Max Mok told broadcaster ABC.