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Leaving China

By Gerald Marzorati
It’s Time to Move On From Tennis’ Big Bet on China.

In light of the disappearance of former world No. 1 doubles player, Peng Shuai, we present the following piece, which first appeared in Racquet No. 15, published earlier this year. Peng disappeared earlier this month after alleging sexual abuse by one of China’s top leaders, former vice premier Zhang Gaoli. On Wednesday, Chinese state media released an email purportedly from Peng which, frankly, raised more questions than it answered, and provoked a song condemnation from WTA CEO Steve Simon and fans of tennis and democracy everywhere.

Women’s professional tennis began with a boycott. In the summer of 1970, at an event in California called the Pacific Southwest Championships, one of the key figures in the ushering in of the Open Era and the founding of the Association of Tennis Professionals, the former-great-turned-promoter Jack Kramer, offered the men entering the tournament a total of $12,500 in prize money, and the women just $1,500. He proposed paying the women no money at all until they reached the quarterfinals; they should, presumably, play for glory and the good of the game. That proved the last straw for Billie Jean King, who led a group of players (“The Original Nine”) in a boycott of the event—and eventually to the formation of the Virginia Slims Circuit. The Women’s Tennis Association tour, launched in 1973, grew out of that circuit, and King always saw clearly that what she and those other earliest women pros were fighting for, with their demand for pay equity, was part of something larger, beyond tennis. It grew out of what now gets called the Sixties, as King put forward in We Have Come a Long Way, her 1988 history of the women’s game, its title echoing the advertising slogan for Virginia Slims, the cigarettes marketed specifically to women, and the sponsor (accepted with ambivalence by King and the others) of the first women’s pro tour. King, in her book, used the term “consciousness”—an alertness to injustice and other societal wrongs, and a moral impulse to try to right them. She saw her push for prize-money parity as a fight for women’s rights more broadly, a fight aligned as well with the struggle for racial equality and a wider expansion of human rights. The battle she led was about money, but not only about money.

In 2019, the last full season of pro tennis before the coronavirus struck, there were nine WTA tour tournaments scheduled to be held in China—one more than slated for the United States, and way more than planned for any other country. That there were that many events on the tour calendar in China was only about money. It was possible, 25 years ago, even after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, to believe that China’s opening to global capitalism, including pro sports like tennis, would, inevitably, lead to the creation of a more open Chinese society. (Full disclosure: I was a believer.) That idea, today, is an indefensible one. The Chinese Communist Party presides over an unyielding autocracy. Freedom—individual freedom, democratic freedom, press freedom, intellectual freedom, artistic freedom—never came. What emerged instead was a vast, centralized surveillance state that even Orwell never quite imagined. In recent years, according to human-rights groups and news outlets such as the BBC, a million Turkish-Muslim Uighurs in northwest China, perhaps more, have been herded into government-run mass detention centers, there to be “reeducated” (stripped of their language and their religious beliefs) and subjected to forced labor. A leader in The Economist in October called the Chinese government’s campaign against the Uighurs—a campaign that, among other things, has separated thousands of children from detained parents—“the most extensive violation in the world today of the principle that individuals have a right to liberty and dignity simply because they are people.” Other ethnic groups, like the long-oppressed Tibetans, have been the victims of increasingly severe crackdowns. Then there is Hong Kong, the former British colony handed back to China in 1997, with China agreeing that the city would continue to enjoy free speech, impartial courts, and a “high degree of autonomy.” In recent years, Beijing—first furtively, and, more recently, not so furtively—has taken harsher steps to bring semiautonomous Hong Kong under its control. This, in turn, has spurred protests by millions of Hong Kongers: There is nowhere today where men and women, the majority of them young, are struggling more courageously, concertedly, and for the most part peacefully for human freedoms and civil liberties. Which, in turn, has led to arrests and a number of carefully calibrated displays of intimidation orchestrated by the Chinese government.

For example, in August 2019, with protest marches convulsing Hong Kong every weekend, Chinese paramilitary forces commandeered a stadium in Shenzhen, from where a drive across a nearby bridge spanning Deep Bay gets you to Hong Kong in under an hour. Armored personnel carriers filled the parking area. On the field inside, as revealed in photographs the military took and made available, troops practiced battling not soldiers but youths in street clothes. It was a warning aimed across the bay that the use of force from the Chinese mainland to quell the protests remained an option. The stadium was the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center. It was where the WTA Finals would be held, for the first time, 10 weeks after this exercise in intimidation. The paramilitary display might have been understood by WTA officials as a warning of a different sort: Was it a good idea for women’s tennis to be building a future that depended, to a significant degree, on financing from China? In the idiom of the young women who play professional tennis: What about the brand? 

No worries. That, essentially, was what the WTA’s president, Micky Lawler, told The New York Times in October 2019 after overseeing the Shenzhen deal. “We’ve had nothing but a great relationship with China,” she said. “They have been very good partners. The reason we love working in sports is because it’s not supposed to touch anything but positive human connections.” Sports is about sticking to sports, in other words. Women’s tennis had come a long way.

Those paramilitary troops never did roll into Hong Kong, though the WTA’s 2019 Prudential Hong Kong Tennis Open, scheduled to begin in late September, was canceled as a result of ongoing protests. But the threat from Beijing remains. With the world focused on the coronavirus pandemic, China this past summer adopted a new national security law, imposed by fiat on Hong Kong but covering all Chinese nationals, that criminalizes four vaguely defined types of activity—secession, subversion of state power, terrorism, and collusion with foreign entities—and suggests penalties of up to life in prison. Arrests of prominent pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong have followed. With China canceling all international sporting events as a result of the worldwide spread of COVID-19, there was no China swing this fall in tennis. The WTA should use this pandemic-induced pause to rethink its commitment—its increasing dependence—on China. 

The ATP, of course, stages tournaments in Chinese cities too, four in 2019. But the men’s side does not have political and social consciousness in its DNA. (Take the tennis world’s Black Lives Matter protests: There was Naomi Osaka, and among top-ranked men’s players there was…who?) And then there’s the reality that China plays a smaller role in the men’s game. It’s neither a primary source of revenue nor where elite-level talent is likely to come from, at least anytime soon. There is precisely one Chinese player, 156th-ranked Zhizhen Zhang, in the ATP top 200. There has never been a male Li Na. 

Li Na was 29 when she won the French Open in 2011, becoming the first Chinese player to win a Grand Slam tournament. She went on to win an Australian Open before retiring at the end of 2014. By then, she was one of the most famous people in China. An estimated 116 million viewers in China had watched the broadcast of her French Open victory. Li’s first racquet sport had been badminton, and tennis had only recently been seen for the first time by the vast majority of Chinese (thanks, in no small part, to its reintroduction to the Olympics held in Seoul in 1988) when she took up the game at age 8. Today, some 14 million Chinese are said to play tennis, and tennis in China is estimated to be a $4 billion industry, making it second only to the United States (estimate: $6 billion) and growing at a faster rate, with women the key driver of that growth. (Men prefer basketball.) There were, in the fall of 2020, five Chinese women in the WTA top 100. It’s easy enough to understand the reasoning behind the WTA’s decision to move the tour’s culmination, the WTA Finals, to Shenzhen for 10 years beginning in 2019. 

The biggest reason? Shenzhen had outbid a number of other cities in Europe and elsewhere. The successful bid was submitted by Gemdale Corporation, one of China’s largest real-estate developers, with a promise of a new stadium and at least $4.4 million for the tournament’s singles champion. This represented the largest amount ever promised a player in women’s tennis—or men’s. Total prize money in Shenzhen would be in the neighborhood of $14 million, almost double the prize money distributed to men at the 2019 ATP Finals in London. China was betting on women’s tennis: Someday soon, perhaps, Wang Qiang or some other Chinese player in the women’s game would be among the top-ranked eight who get to compete in the WTA Finals. (Two pairs of Chinese doubles players were among the eight doubles teams to qualify for the finals in Shenzhen last year.) And the WTA, like the racquet and sneaker and tennis-kit manufacturers, was betting on China: It was where the money was, the big money. 

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Contracts are contracts, and there should be no minimizing of how difficult it is and will continue to be to find alternative cities, promoters, and sponsors for tour tournaments. This is not a call for a boycott—though there is talk of them, including a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics being pressed by human-rights groups and entertained by the British government, among others. Players on the women’s tour and its sponsors will have to have their “consciousness” raised. Look what happened last fall when Daryl Morey, then the general manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, posted a tweet urging his social-media followers to “stand with Hong Kong.” Sponsors panicked, LeBron James(!) denounced Morey as “misinformed”(?), and the tweet was deleted. But that shouldn’t, that can’t, be a deterrent for the WTA. The deep association with China that the WTA has forged is not healthy ethically and, to judge from other international industries with considerable stakes in China (finance, technology), not likely to be economically resilient. It is time for the WTA to begin weaning itself from China. 

To be replaced by what? My first thought is to simply shorten the season a little. By the time the inaugural Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen rolled around in late October of last year, Naomi Osaka, ranked third in the world at the time, had withdrawn with a shoulder injury; later, during the tournament, both Kiki Bertens and Belinda Bencic retired from matches. The women would do well to play less. If staging fewer tournaments is thought not to be an option, however, perhaps there could be indoor fall events, with night matches, in major cities like London, Paris, New York, Los Angeles—or Prague, which also made a bid to host the WTA Finals. Or maybe something like the Laver Cup, but with ranking points offered; or a tournament that experiments with new format ideas, or shines a spotlight on the youngest talent on the women’s side. Such tournaments might attract new fans, or anyway, fans, which the tournaments in China have never attracted in meaningful numbers. Fans, and coverage, too, from outlets with a sustained and extensive commitment to the sport, outlets like The New York Times—whose website, in both English and Chinese, is blocked by Beijing. 

Sports since the 1960s have seldom just stuck to sports—that’s simply a formulation that gets used from time to time to defend the status quo. Women’s sports at the intercollegiate and professional levels wouldn’t exist as they do today if sports had stuck to sports. Women’s tennis, in particular, has never stuck to sports. Not sticking to sports advances change, change for the better, for sports themselves but, in moments, not only for sports. It’s time that not sticking to sports leads to women’s tennis not sticking with China.

Above: In August 2019, with protest marches convulsing Hong Kong every week- end, Chinese paramili- tary forces comman- deered the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center, site of the WTA Finals. (Agnes Ricart)

Gerald Marzorati, a Racquet contributor, writes regularly about tennis for newyorker.com. His new book, Seeing Serena, was published by Scribner in spring 2021.

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