The more tennis star Peng Shuai 'speaks out', the more worrying her saga becomes

A photo, appearing to show Peng Shuai enjoying public life, drew concerns from those who believe it to be staged.

Has it all been an enormous misunderstanding? Has the Women's Tennis Association cancelled all its tournaments in China this year over something that never happened? That is what the woman at the centre of sexual assault claims against a former Chinese government official, wants the world to believe. In an interview with a French newspaper Peng Shuai has denied accusing someone of sexual assault and claimed the social media post which sparked concern for her had been misinterpreted and ‘’skewed’’ by the outside world.

On November 2 last year Peng Shuai - a double grand slam winner and one of China’s most successful tennis players - posted allegations online detailing an affair and unwanted sexual relations with the former Chinese vice premier Zhang Gaoli.

The lengthy post detailed a relationship which lasted several years during which he had forced her to have sex, despite repeated refusals.

The post lasted all but half an hour but it was up for long enough to create concern and outrage across the country, and around the world. The eloquently and emotionally written post could not have been clearer about the alleged affair and the physical nature of it. But in her first formal interview with a foreign journalist, Peng claims to have never made any sexual assault allegations. L’Equipe, a sports newspaper, was asked to submit all its questions in advance of the interview which was organised by the Chinese Olympic Committee. A representative from the Committee was present during the interview.

Credit: AP/Michel Euler

When asked if she had been in trouble with the authorities since the post, Peng did not answer directly, instead she told the journalist: "My romantic problems, my private life, should not be mixed with sport and politics.” Her life since November, has been "nothing special". Details of the interview emerged as the International Olympic Committee released a statement saying its President Thomas Bach, had met with Peng Shuai for dinner in Beijing on Saturday night.

That statement made no mention of the allegations, or any particular concern that should warrant the IOC President taking time out from the Winter Olympics to meet with the tennis player.

In November, the International Olympic Committee confirmed they'd spoken to the three-time Olympian over a 30-minute video call.

At an Olympic press conference in Beijing on Monday, IOC spokesperson Mark Adams said it was not for the committee to decide if there should be an investigation or not into the retracted claims of sexual assault: “I am not sure we are able, as a sports organisation, to make that call.” Mr Adams went on to say that the IOC was doing everything it could ‘’to make sure that the situation is as it should be". When asked why it took until Monday for the committee to confirm they had met with Peng Shuai on Saturday evening he first said they released it when they thought it was the right time, then finished by saying “we released the statement this morning because we had the statement ready. It is as simple as that". He repeated that the IOC is trying to carry out “personal, quiet diplomacy” by staying in touch with Peng Shuai and they have invited to her the IOC headquarters in Lausanne. An invite she has said she will take up when the pandemic is over.

After the accusations emerged, Peng disappeared from public view for almost three weeks, before re-appearing in a few apparently staged photo opportunities and in videos released by Chinese state media.

She also held a video call with the aforementioned IOC president, after which he reassured the world, she was fine. No mention was made of the allegations she had made and only one still image was released of their conversation. The Women’s Tennis Association was at the forefront of a global campaign to raise awareness of her case, and receive confirmation of where she was, and how she was. It said it was suspending all of its competitions in China until it was able to speak directly to Peng Shuai and independently confirm her well-being.

At last month's Australian Open, some spectators wore ‘’Where is Peng Shuai?’’ T-shirts, amid continued concern that her movements and her words are being controlled by the Chinese authorities.

Drew Pavlou, left, and Max Mok show some of the shirts they handed out to patrons at the Australian Open tennis championships.

At the end of the interview with L’Equipe Peng confirmed she is retiring from tennis and told the interviewer: ‘’I am a completely normal girl, a completely ordinary tennis player." Every one of her responses appears designed to put the issue to bed. To sweep it under the carpet and make it look like an unfortunate misunderstanding, or worse, to make it look like she made everything up. From the start of this sad affair, the Chinese authorities have be working to erase the whole thing, only her high profile and persistent alarm raised by the WTA has prevented them from disappearing Peng herself. Peng hasn’t denied posting the allegations, she has just told us they aren’t what they were interpreted to be, and she’s now told us that it was her, not the censors who deleted the post. The more the 36-year-old “speaks out” and makes these appearances in public, the more worrying this story becomes.

If we are to believe that it has indeed been a huge misunderstanding, or was made up, then why has there been no apology, no attempt made to clear the name of the man she accused - the still elusive Zhang Gaoli.