FEARS remain concerning the safety and whereabouts of former Wimbledon champion Peng Shuai after doubts were cast over an email released by Chinese state media.
Shuai, 35, has not been seen since posting sexual assault allegations against a top Chinese official on social media earlier in November.
The star said 75-year-old ex-vice premier Zhang Gaoli forced her to have sex with him three years ago and they had extramarital relations seven years ago.
The post was removed from website Weibo and there had been no sign of Shuai until Wednesday when CGTN released an email addressed to WTA chairman and CEO Steve Simon, which they claim was written by Shuai herself.
The email said that her own allegations of sexual abuse against the official are not true, and that she is also not missing but just ‘resting at home’.
However, WTA chief Simon questioned the authenticity of the email.
He said: “The statement released today by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts.
“I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her.
“Peng Shuai displayed incredible courage in describing an allegation of sexual assault against a former top official in the Chinese government.
“The WTA and the rest of the world need independent and verifiable proof that she is safe.
“I have repeatedly tried to reach her via numerous forms of communication, to no avail.
“Peng Shuai must be allowed to speak freely, without coercion or intimidation from any source.
“Her allegation of sexual assault must be respected, investigated with full transparency and without censorship.
The voices of women need to be heard and respected, not censored nor dictated to.”
Others on social media were unconvinced by the alleged email posted on the Chinese state media Twitter page, pointing out a typing cursor in the middle of the screenshot.
The published email said: “Hello everyone this is Peng Shuai.
“Regarding the recent news released on the official website of the WTA, the content has not been confirmed or verified by myself and it was released without my consent.
“The news in that release, including the allegation of sexual assault, is not true.
“I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine.
“Thank you again for caring about me. If the WTA publishes any more news about me, please verify it with me, and release it with my consent.
“As a professional tennis player, I thank you all for your companionship and consideration.
“I hope to promote Chinese tennis with you all if I have the chance in the future. I hope Chinese tennis will become better and better.
“Once again, thank you for your consideration.”
Many inside the tennis world are, of course, massively worried about their colleague.
The hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai continues to be circulated online with Naomi Osaka adding a brief statement.
It said: “Censorship is never ok at any cost. I hope Peng Shuai and her family are safe and ok.
“I’m in shock of the current situation and I’m sending love and light her way.”
Men’s No1 Novak Djokovic, currently at the ATP Finals in Turin, said: “Honestly, it’s shocking that she’s missing, more so that it’s someone that I have seen on the tour in the previous years quite a few times.
“It’s not much more to say than hope that she will be found, that she’s OK. It’s just terrible. I can imagine just how her family feels that she’s missing.”
Shuai won the Wimbledon ladies’ doubles title in 2013 and 2014 French Open with Hsieh Su-wei and reached world No1 ranking in 2014.
In singles, she reached the fourth round at the All England Club three times and the 2014 US Open semi-finals.