Where is Peng Shuai? WTA says email raises safety concerns

Peng Shuai, a Chinese tennis player
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TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Peng Shuai – the Chinese professional tennis player not seen in public since she accused a former top government official of sexual assault – purportedly sent an email claiming she was safe and that the allegation was false, a message that only amplified concerns about her safety and demands for information about her well-being and whereabouts.

So far, those calls have been met by silence.

Chinese officials have said nothing publicly since the accusation about two weeks ago by Grand Slam doubles champion Peng Shuai that she was sexually assaulted. The first #MeToo case to reach the political realm in China has not been reported by the domestic media and online discussion of it has been highly censored.

Steve Simon, the chairman and CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association, questioned the authenticity of what Chinese state media said was an email intended for him in which Peng says she is safe and that the assault allegation is untrue. It was posted Thursday by CGTN, the international arm of Chinese state broadcaster CCTV.

“I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her,” Simon wrote.

The statement, he added, “only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts.”

Simon has demanded a full investigation, and the WTA said it is prepared to pull tournaments out of the country if it doesn’t get an appropriate response. Top players including Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic have spoken out, and the hashtag WhereisPengShuai is trending online.

International Tennis Federation spokeswoman Heather Bowler said Thursday that the governing body is in contact with the Chinese Tennis Association and is liaising with the WTA and the International Olympic Committee.

“Player safety is always our top priority and we support a full and transparent investigation into this matter,” Bowler wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “While we have not spoken to the player, we are in touch with the national tennis association in China (CTA) in the event they may be able to provide any further information or updates.”

China has largely suppressed a #MeToo movement that flourished briefly in 2018 and is forging ahead with the Beijing Winter Olympics in February despite boycott calls by activists and some overseas politicians over China’s human rights record.

Asked repeatedly about the case, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said again on Thursday that he is unaware of it.

The 35-year-old Peng is a former No. 1-ranked player in women’s doubles who won titles at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014.

She wrote in a lengthy social media post on Nov. 2 that Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier who was a member of the ruling Communist Party’s top leadership committee, had forced her to have sex despite repeated refusals three years ago.

The post was quickly deleted from her verified account on Weibo, a leading Chinese social media platform, but screenshots of the explosive accusation quickly spread across China’s internet. She has not appeared in public since then, raising questions about her whereabouts and whether she is being detained.

Zhang, who is 75, dropped from public sight after his retirement in 2018, as is usual for former senior officials. He is not known to have any close connections to current leaders.

Peng’s accusation is the first high profile accusation of sexual assault against a powerful politician in China. Past accusations touched on prominent figures in the non-profit world, academia and media, but never reached the Communist Party’s top officials or state-owned companies.

CGTN posted the statement on Twitter, which is blocked in China along with many other foreign platforms such as Google and Facebook. It did not post it on Chinese social media, nor was there any mention of the purported email behind the Great Firewall, which separates the Chinese internet from the rest of the world.

Some internet users have circumvented the controls and posted about the news in private social media groups. Freeweibo.com, which records censored posts from Weibo, said searches for “Peng Shuai” and “Zhang Gaoli” were both among the top 10 searched topics on Thursday.

Searches for Peng Shuai’s name on China’s Sogou search engine turn up only articles about her tennis career. Her account on Weibo no longer allows comments, and no results turn up if people search for her Weibo account.

Peng wrote that Zhang’s wife guarded the door during the alleged assault, which followed a round of tennis. Her post also said they had sex seven years ago and she had feelings for him after that. She also said she knew speaking up would be difficult.

“Yes, aside from myself, I kept no evidence, no recordings, no videos, only the real experience of my twisted self. Even if I’m destroying myself, like throwing an egg against a rock, or a moth flying into a flame, I will still speak out the truth about us,” the now-deleted post said.

Her allegation came just three months before Beijing hosts the Winter Olympics, which have been the target of a boycott campaign from multiple human rights organizations largely over China’s repression of Uyghur Muslims. The games face a possible diplomatic boycott by the United States and other countries. Rights groups have likened Beijing’s 2022 Olympics to Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics. China has consistently denied any human rights abuses and says its actions are part of counterterrorism programs.

Peng has played in three Olympics. The IOC said Thursday in a statement that, “We have seen the latest reports and are encouraged by assurances that she is safe.”

The Switzerland-based IOC, which derives 73% of its income from selling broadcast rights and another 18% from sponsors, has not criticized China, and often repeats that it is only a sports business and has no remit to act on policies of a sovereign state.

The WTA can better afford to bring pressure since it is less dependent on income from China than the IOC or the NBA. The basketball league lost an estimated $400 million in broadcast rights when China blacked out its games in the 2019-2020 season after then-Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of protesters in Hong Kong.

Simon’s statement said Peng has displayed incredible courage, but that he is still concerned about her safety.

“The WTA and the rest of the world need independent and verifiable proof that she is safe,” he wrote. “I have repeatedly tried to reach her via numerous forms of communications, to no avail.”

Crystal Dunn returns to USWNT roster five months after giving birth

Nigeria v USWNT
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Crystal Dunn was named to the USWNT roster for two upcoming friendlies against England and Spain, marking her first official selection since giving birth to son Marcel in May.

Dunn made her NWSL return with the Portland Thorns earlier this month and also trained with the U.S. team as a non-rostered player ahead of friendlies vs. Nigeria.

In addition to Dunn, the 24-player roster features a veteran core of Alyssa Naeher, Becky Sauerbrunn, Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan, Mallory Pugh, and Megan Rapinoe.

Alex Morgan was not named to the USWNT roster due to a knee injury. While U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski did not provide details of the injury, he noted that “if this was a World Cup final, Alex was going to be on this trip and was going to play, no question.”

Other roster highlights include 17-year-old Alyssa Thompson, who becomes the first player born in 2004 to receive a USWNT call-up. Thomas, a high senior, plays club soccer for the U-17 Total Futbol Academy boys’ team.

“We are very excited for her, very excited about her potential and qualities and looking forward to seeing how she will turn out in our environment,” Andonovski said of Thompson. “This camp is not make it or break it. It’s a first experience for her, it’s just something that she shouldn’t even worry about.”

The USWNT also includes a handful of players who have made their USWNT breakthrough this season — thanks in part to both strong NWSL play and injuries to more veteran players. That list includes the likes of Naomi Girma (7 caps), Taylor Kornieck (5 caps), Hailie Mace (5 caps), Sam Coffey (1 cap), and Savannah DeMelo (0 caps).

Andonovski on Thursday called Coffey, a midfielder for the Portland Thorns, a candidate for NWSL MVP.


USWNT Roster for October 2022 Friendlies vs. England and Spain

Goalkeepers (3):

  • Aubrey Kingsbury (Washington Spirit)
  • Casey Murphy (North Carolina Courage)
  • Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)

Defenders(7):

  • Alana Cook (OL Reign)
  • Crystal Dunn (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Emily Fox (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Naomi Girma (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Sofia Huerta (OL Reign)
  • Hailie Mace (Kansas City Current)
  • Becky Sauerbrunn (Portland Thorns FC)

Midfielders (8):

  • Sam Coffey (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Savannah DeMelo (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Lindsey Horan (Olympique Lyon, FRA)
  • Taylor Kornieck (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Rose Lavelle (OL Reign)
  • Kristie Mewis (NJ/NY Gotham FC)
  • Ashley Sanchez (Washington Spirit)
  • Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit)

Forwards (6):

  • Ashley Hatch (Washington Spirit)
  • Mallory Pugh (Chicago Red Stars)
  • Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign)
  • Trinity Rodman (Washington Spirit)
  • Sophia Smith (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Alyssa Thompson (Total Futbol Academy)

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”