Op-ed: The WTA is rebelling, not just for tennis, but for migrant rights

Written by Staff Writer

With this, the International Tennis Federation has decided not to silence its work despite its legacy and human rights associations and causes.

Last week one of the WTA’s biggest champions in Peng Shuai was stopped from returning to the airport in Shanghai after she set foot there. She was denied entry because she had a disability — age four years old. The day before, three professional wheelchair tennis players (Peter McNamara , Diego Schwartzman , Marcos Giron) had their visas denied as they too sought to travel.

“Peng Shuai has not been given a human rights certificate. She doesn’t qualify to come because of her age, and those that are 29 and younger are allowed to come,” said Xiaoding Zhang, director of the International Tennis Federation’s Anti-Discrimination Section.

“We have two criteria for those with disabilities to qualify to travel. They have to get this condition recognized by a certain organization and then be part of the ‘Dream team.’ This is the standard criterion in the IMDATAA [International Tennis Federation Foundation] regulation, one of the requirements for applying for this role.”

Zhang is of the opinion that all four individuals had met all the requirements and should have been granted visas.

Peng Shuai poses with her trophy at the WTA Finals in Singapore. Credit: Edmund Tijerina/The Straits Times via Getty Images

Peng Shuai has a degree in mechanical engineering and came on to the WTA’s global roster in 2016, at the age of 25. In the same year she won the WTA’s Guangzhou Open – the first player in four years to do so. More recently she announced her retirement after nine years on the WTA Tour.

The WTA Players Association has asked for visas for the four individuals, but they have not been granted. Now the WTA and Anti-Discrimination Section are appealing to China to amend the rules, even though it is thought they will not be approved by Chinese authorities, given the country’s “one country, two systems” policy for Hong Kong and Taiwan, despite the WTA’s Chinese nationality.

Svetlana Kuznetsova is just one of the many tennis stars to fight for migrant rights in France . Credit: Suzanne Plunkett/USA TODAY Sports / Reuters

“We have tried to make a plea to China to do something on this because it is so discriminatory, unfair, and a human rights issue for them to be treating this way,” said Zhang.

China has rejected several recommendations to amend the age and disability criteria for making it easier for players with disabilities to travel and is refusing to change its current rule, which has resulted in the WTA repeatedly losing female athletes.

Czech tennis star Petra Kvitova was refused entry to China because she was underage. The governing body claimed it didn’t consider her a relevant age or sport. She later retired, citing “personal reasons” – proving her point.

In 2017 the world’s top-ranked ranked female player Angelique Kerber was turned away from China. The German-born player was denied entry to the country after it was revealed she had been born in the Communist country to an Italian father.

Maria Sharapova was granted a visa to play in China, but has not played there since returning from a drugs ban in 2014, claiming the Tennis Integrity Unit’s investigation into the matter was “not transparent.” She has also launched a lawsuit against the WTA over the treatment of her.

Martin Skinner of the SportsAid charity said they will be glad when the tour moves to Beijing. He believes that the WTA is being forced into becoming human rights champions — despite being “awash in a system of mechanisms designed to stifle and handicap everyone else.”

Martin Skinner of the SportsAid charity welcomes more WTA players to China. Credit: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

“That system might be ‘successful’ in the US but not so much in China, nor across the board across the world, maybe because there is a greater chance that at the end of the day we’ll all die.”

Ultimately Skinner says changes must be made at the top to address this growing problem.

“The WTA’s response is an all of a sudden-sort of ‘in a day and age thing.’ If you want to start to have that effect and be that to the Tour this is going to be the exception – you do not suddenly go and just ban an entire group of players when something bad happens, and be smart about it and listen to what they need and change it overnight.”

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