FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — The man in charge of women’s professional tennis, Steve Simon, has been sitting close enough to the action at the season-ending WTA Finals this week — from a seat in front of the front row, as courtside as can be — that a player easily could wander over for a mid-match chat.
Hasn’t happened. Probably won’t, of course. Simon does say he interacts with the sport’s athletes plenty year-round — “I’m not pen pals with all of them, per se; I’m not going to flop down on the sofa next to them, per se … but I think we have a good relationship” — and listens to their concerns, many of which lately can be summed up by one particular word.
“Everyone’s looking for stability,” WTA Tour Chairman and CEO Simon said during an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday at Dickies Arena, which has a one-year deal to host the tournament for the top eight singles players and top eight doubles teams through next Monday, before giving way to the site’s usual mix of monster trucks, rodeo shows, indoor lacrosse and concerts by acts such as George Strait and the Eagles.
One unresolved issue for Simon, with an underlying cause that troubles him and players alike, is when the tour’s events, including the WTA Finals, will return to China. A year ago, the WTA suspended all tournaments in that country because of concerns about the safety of Peng Shuai, a Grand Slam doubles champion who accused a former government official there of sexual assault. Simon wanted a full and transparent inquiry into her allegations and a chance for the tour to communicate with her — none of which has happened yet.
Peng immediately disappeared from public view, then tried to recant. She doesn’t leave China and was part of carefully orchestrated appearances during the Beijing Olympics in February.
“All I can do is think about her and hope she’s doing well,” said Coco Gauff, an 18-year-old American entered in singles and doubles in Fort Worth. “We were told she is, but you never know.”
Shenzhen, China, was supposed to hold the WTA Finals through 2030, but the pandemic scrapped those plans in 2020 and 2021. Simon does not know what will happen in 2023, promising a decision “no later than the end of the first quarter of next year.”
“We hope that that’s where we’re going to be,” he said, “but, obviously, we have some issues to resolve.”
He named two: Peng’s situation and lingering coronavirus restrictions.
“We do need to resolve Peng. … We’re comfortable that she’s safe, and we know she’s in Beijing, which is great. We want that. But we haven’t received the assurances that we want with respect to the investigation that we requested,” Simon said. “What’s the real story? That’s all we’ve asked for. What’s the story? She obviously had great courage to come forward with what she said. The principles that are involved are right in line with what we stand for as an organization. And what we’ve asked for is an investigation to understand what occurred, what didn’t occur, and then address it appropriately.”
The placement of the WTA Finals in Fort Worth wasn’t announced until September — the scheduling that placed it right before the Billie Jean King Cup Finals in Scotland next week drew some criticism — and there were thousands of empty seats during the first two days of competition.
Simon called it “a very last-minute destination” and referred to the venue as “probably a little big for us, but a beautiful arena.”
Even No. 1-ranked Iga Swiatek made note of that, telling the crowd after her victory Tuesday night: “Hopefully we’re going to see a full house soon.”
Simon said he’s spoken with Simona Halep, the two-time Grand Slam champion and former top-ranked player who was provisionally suspended 1 1/2 weeks ago after testing positive for a banned substance at the U.S. Open in August.
“I believe her that she didn’t intentionally do something here. That being said, I do believe very strongly in our anti-doping program, and I think it’s a good one, and our players support it, too. And if you ask Simona, she supports it,” Simon said. “I’m very confident that as we go through the process, the truth is going to come out, and we will deal with it accordingly. But I have a lot of sympathy for Simona, because I would never question her integrity.”
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