American tennis sensation Serena Williams expressed concern about missing Chinese player Peng Shuai, saying her case “must be investigated” and urging people “not to stay silent” about her welfare.
The 35-year-old athlete has not been heard from since she made sexual assault allegations against a leading Chinese government official two weeks ago.
Peng’s allegation is the highest-profile incident in China’s #MeToo movement.
Chinese state media has released an email attributed to Peng, but doubt has been cast about its authenticity.
“I am devastated and shocked to hear about the news. This must be investigated and we must not stay silent,” said Williams, 23-time Grand Slam singles champion.
“I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible. Sending love to her and her family during this incredibly difficult time,” she added.
Concern for Peng’s welfare has continued to grow since she said she was “forced” into a sexual relationship with former China vice-premier Zhang Gaoli.
The allegations were made in a post on Chinese social media site Weibo on 03 November and soon deleted from China’s internet.
It is the first time such a claim has been made against one of China’s senior political leaders.
Zhang, 75, who served as China’s vice-premier between 2013 and 2018 and was a close ally of President Xi Jinping, has not responded to Peng’s claims.
On Thursday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said he was “not aware of the relevant situation” when asked about it by a reporter.
People from across tennis – including past and present players, coaches and journalists – have been demanding answers about Peng’s welfare, as have other high-profile sports stars, actors and politicians.
Many have been using #WhereIsPengShuai on Twitter posts, along with a photo of her.
Serbia’s Novac Djokovic was one of the first big-name players to discuss the issue, saying it was “shocking” when asked earlier this week.
Japan’s four-time major winner Noami Osaka, who has long used her platform to speak out about social issues, added her concern and said “censorship is never OK”.
On Thursday, Barcelona and former Spain footballer Gerard Pique became one of the most prominent athletes outside tennis to express his concern.
Amnesty International – the organisation which focuses on human rights – said the email purporting to be from Peng should “not be taken at face value”.
The group questioned Chinese state media’s “track record” of “so-called statements”.
With China set to host next year’s Winter Olympics in Beijing, the International Olympic Committee was also asked for comment.
It said: “Experience shows that quiet diplomacy offers the best opportunity to find a solution for questions of such nature.”
Peng is a former world number one doubles player who has won two Grand Slam titles – at Wimbledon in 2013 and the 2014 French Open, both alongside Chinese Taipei’s Hsieh Su-wei.
She also achieved a career-high singles rankings of 14 in 2011 and reached the US Open singles semi-finals in 2014.
Peng, who has not played on the WTA Tour since March 2020, acknowledged she would not be able to provide proof to back up her claims. (Source: BBC)