GUANGZHOU, China -- Professional women's tennis tournaments return to China on Monday, less than two years after the WTA vowed to boycott the country out of concern for player Peng Shuai and risks to its players and staff.
The WTA tournament opening Monday in the southern metropolis of Guangzhou will be the first in mainland China since 2019 -- and while no top-20 stars are expected to attend, it is set to attract plenty of attention.
The WTA suspended activities in China in December 2021, when former world doubles number one Peng briefly disappeared after making -- and then withdrawing -- accusations of sexual assault against a senior Chinese leader.
Saying the issue was "bigger than business", the tennis body insisted it would not hold events in China until Beijing guaranteed the safety of Peng.
"Given the current state of affairs, I am also greatly concerned about the risks that all of our players and staff could face if we were to hold events in China," WTA chief Steve Simon said at the time.
Peng published a long social media post in November 2021 saying she had been "forced" into sex during a years-long, on-and-off relationship with Zhang Gaoli, a married ex-vice premier of China 39 years her senior.
She has since denied she accused anyone of sexual assault and described the situation as a "huge misunderstanding".
Peng has not been seen outside China since the allegations were made.
In April this year though, the WTA announced the resumption of tournaments, admitting its "principled stand... a powerful message to the world" had not been able "to bring about change".
"It was, in my opinion, a complete capitulation, because it was pretty obvious to anyone who knows anything about China that China wasn't going to offer a free or fair investigation into the sexual assault claims," China-based sports expert Mark Dreyer told AFP.
"I really do feel they've undone all that good will that they had gained by taking a principled stance."
Dreyer added that the suspension had been largely symbolic as most international sporting events were put on hold during the pandemic under China's strict zero-Covid policy.
- An economic choice -
China is a crucial market for the WTA, given the quality of local infrastructure and investment as well as TV rights and sponsorship deals with mainland partners.
"The choice to return is an economic one," Lionel Maltese, a former member of the executive committee of the French Tennis Federation, told AFP.
"The income generated in China has a strong impact on the financing and income of all players."
Before the pandemic, the WTA organized 10 tournaments in China each year -- with a total of $30 million in prize money -- out of more than 60 tournaments globally.
These included the WTA Finals in Shenzhen, which in 2019 offered the largest tennis prize in history: $4.4 million.
China is also home to five players on the world's top 100 list.
They include 20-year-old Zheng Qinwen, world number 22 and recent quarter-finalist at the US Open, and 21-year-old Wang Xinyu, this year's French Open women's doubles winner.
These stars have boosted the popularity of tennis in China, along with the market's economic potential.
"If you have enough big names, the money will come, the tournaments will come," Dreyer told AFP.
- 'Convictions' -
The headliners in Guangzhou are likely to be world number 24 Magda Linette from Poland and Romania's Sorana Cirstea, currently world number 26.
It is unclear if any players will be vocal about Peng, with Maltese saying there was "no leadership among players on ethical issues".
"Very few athletes are taking a stand," he said.
But France's Alize Cornet, ranked 99th globally, announced this week she would skip the tournament.
"Staying true to my convictions and careful about my health, I decided that I will not be playing in China this year," she wrote on social media.
Peng herself could make an appearance.
After her initial disappearance from public view, she has made what appeared to be orchestrated appearances at multiple sporting events, including the Beijing Winter Olympics in February 2022.
© Agence France-Presse