The WTA’s Inglorious Return to China

Aron Solomon

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I was right, then I was super wrong. But I may have again been right.

The problem when you give a business credit for doing the right thing is that they often find it to be an unsustainable decision. So they pivot and go back to doing the wrong thing as they watch their bank balances grow.

Buried in the news dump of the Women’s Tennis Association holding this year’s tour finals in Fort Worth, Texas, last week, the WTA parenthetically let us know that the tour finals will be returning to its permanent home, Shenzhen, for 2023.

To say that Peng Shuai’s disappearance and strained reemergence have been forgotten by the WTA would be unfair. It’s far more accurate to say that the WTA has simply done a harsh calculus that will see them pay lip service to the well-being of Peng Shuai and the innumerable human rights violations in China while playing Muzak versions of Pink Floyd’s “Money” on an infinite loop in their corporate elevators.

For those of us who fell under the warm blanket of believing that the NFL was the only sports organization incapable of getting any fundamental issue right, the WTA swaggered in and said hold my Tsingtao.

As Jon Wertheim wrote in Sports Illustrated, the WTA’s new China policy is simply a return to the see no evil, hear no evil, they embraced before last November’s out-of-character, intelligent, policy change:

“‘The WTA announced that Fort Worth, Texas, will host the 2022 season-ending WTA Finals from Oct. 31-Nov. 7...with the event thereafter due to return to Shenzhen, China, in cooperation with long-term partner Gemdale.’ Wait, what? That’s quote from a press release. Last November, the WTA took the principled stance —courageously; pointedly; to worldwide acclaim—that China was untenable as host because the country’s values were inconsistent with the WTA’s values. What’s more, the WTA demanded that China conduct a fair and transparent investigation into the mysterious case Peng Shuai. China did not reply, much less comply. And now the WTA is going back? A two-word question: what changed?”

Literally, nothing has changed for the better since the WTA made its grand announcement to leave China. The only thing that has changed is that the WTA, the Chinese government, and the sponsor corporations whose strings the Chinese Communist Party pulls all recognize that there is a talented, exciting, and extremely marketable group of Chinese players today on tour today. Their existence and the economic impact of what their emergence can mean to the women’s game and its marketability in China are going to override any more lofty China considerations the WTA claimed to have had.

This group is led by Zheng Qinwen, a 19-year-old sensation who has climbed to world number 37. Unlike any Chinese woman before, Zheng has no ceiling on her talent. Living and training in Barcelona, she is a skilled and fierce competition, mature far beyond her years on the court. As she understands more about her game, everyone else on tour will suffer. While Zheng’s goal is to reach the top 30 by the end of this calendar year, as a very close observer of the WTA, it would be improbable but certainly not impossible for her to qualify for the 2023 tour final in Shenzhen, which would mean finishing in the top 8 in 2023 tour points.

Yet Zheng is not alone in carrying China’s flag into this era of new cooperation with the WTA. No less than five Chinese women are in the top 100 today, with one more perched at world number 101. A look at the junior circuits also shows a new crop of players first honing their craft against East Asian competition, then moving along to try to conquer the world.

Yet none of this progress in Chinese tennis purports to answer the now eternal and infernal question, “Where is Peng Shuai?” Any realistic answer is something held by only the Chinese government and a few private individuals unwilling or unable to talk. Absent an actual cogent response, the WTA literally has no business in China, yet here we are.

As Michael Epstein, an attorney who closely follows breaking issues in sports law, commented to me:

“From sports to microchips to our relationship with Taiwan, the political and legal issues surrounding China get more complicated by the week. Any American company whose business model can’t accommodate not doing business in China is going to have some hard decisions ahead.”

I reached out to the WTA for comment, asking simply:

“I’d like a straight answer on why the WTA is returning to China in 2023. What massive chunks of information am I missing?”

So far, I have exactly what I expected - no reply.

That’s probably because the WTA was absolutely underwater with public outcry after the announced their China return. So much so that, according to some sources, they may now be walking back the entire plan.

This isn’t where the WTA should be today. Since its founding in 1973 by Billie Jean King and nine other female players, the WTA has purported to stand for important and meaningful things.

One of those things is standing up for your own, which Peng Shuai was and is. Peng Shuai wasn’t just a journeywoman player - she won four WTA singles titles and reached a career-high ranking of world number 14 eight years ago. She is among the most accomplished Chinese women to have played professional tennis, yet the WTA has essentially abandoning her, whether or not they ultimately return to China in 2023. This is exactly what the Chinese government and sponsors bet that they would eventually do.

Few of us expected it would be so soon.

About Aron Solomon

A Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer, Aron Solomon, JD, is the Chief Legal Analyst for Esquire Digital and 24-7 Abogados. He has taught entrepreneurship at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania, and was elected to Fastcase 50, recognizing the top 50 legal innovators in the world. Aron has been featured in Forbes, CBS News, CNBC, USA Today, ESPN, TechCrunch, The Hill, BuzzFeed, Fortune, Venture Beat, The Independent, Fortune China, Yahoo!, ABA Journal, Law.com, The Boston Globe, NewsBreak, and many other leading publications.

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Aron Solomon, JD, is the Chief Legal Analyst for Esquire Digital, who has taught entrepreneurship at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania, and was elected to Fastcase 50, recognizing the top 50 legal innovators in the world.

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