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Martina Navratilova. Picture: REUTERS/EDGAR SU
Martina Navratilova. Picture: REUTERS/EDGAR SU

Melbourne — Martina Navratilova said Australian Open organisers were cowardly to prevent fans from wearing shirts bearing messages of support for Chinese doubles player Peng Shuai at the Grand Slam event.

After video emerged of security officials and police instructing fans on Saturday to remove shirts with the slogan, “Where is Peng Shuai?” on them, Tennis Australia (TA) defended its stance by saying the tournament does not allow political statements.

TA's position dismayed 18-times Grand Slam winner Navratilova, who said the national governing body was giving in to China and placing sponsorship money ahead of human rights concerns.

“I find it really, really cowardly,” she said on the US-based Tennis Channel. “I think they are wrong on this. This is not a political statement, this is a human rights statement.

"[Tennis Australia is] just really capitulating on this issue ... letting the Chinese really dictate what they do at their own Slam. I just find it really weak.”

Tennis Australia reiterated its stance on Monday, adding that Peng's safety remained its “primary concern”.

“We continue to work with the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) and the global tennis community to do everything we can to ensure [Peng’s] wellbeing. Our work is ongoing and through the appropriate channels,” a spokesperson said in a statement to Reuters.

Peng’s situation became a matter of concern in November when she alleged that a former Chinese vice-premier, Zhang Gaoli, had sexually assaulted her in the past. After that post, she was absent from public view for nearly three weeks.

In December, she said she had never accused anyone of sexually assaulting her, and that a social media post she had made had been misunderstood.

The WTA suspended tournaments in China due to its concerns over Peng’s safety.

French player Nicolas Mahut slammed TA’s response on Twitter: “What lack of courage! What if you did not have Chinese sponsors?”

Baijiu distillery Luzhu Laojiao and Chinese mattress company De Rucci are sponsors of 2022’s first Grand Slam.

On Monday, Peng supporters in Australia said they were planning to hand out 1,000 “Where is Peng Shuai?” T-shirts at Melbourne Park this week, after raising more than $10,000 on a GoFundMe page.

“We can see how many match-goers they can stop,” activist Max Mok told Australian ABC Radio.

TA said security officials will continue to enforce its policy at Melbourne Park.

“The policy will continue to be applied in relation to any items that compromise the safety and comfort of AO fans,” the organisers said.



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