A dispute over the whereabouts of a Chinese player has threatened to suspend the three-times grand slam champion and former world No2 Zheng Jie, Swiss group SAP and Porsche cars.
Peng Shuai has become the latest star to disappear from the tour, and she is now facing the threat of losing sponsorship after her agent claimed he had lost track of the 31-year-old when she flew to Beijing and missed a scheduled flight to Chennai to open the account for her tennis equipment.
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“We feel this is a big, big problem, we’re in trouble,” the China Daily quoted the China Women’s Tennis Association president Liu Shicun as saying.
“We are looking into the matter to see if the payments were dishonoured. It is difficult for us to send the contract to Chennai because there is no other airport available that is close to Beijing.
“Also, these players are not getting paid and on top of that they are not giving us the information. There is no communication. We’re still waiting for them.”
The ITF said this week that a player disappearance is a breach of its rules and Peng’s absence from the WTA’s website prompted its chief executive David Haggerty to suggest one solution was to ban such disappearances.
Haggerty said: “I do think that, in the United States, we would need to remove players from the list of competitors who are still associated with their sponsor because we don’t want these players to be wandering around the world without a job, without a contract.
“Clearly, we need to respect player’s privacy but that is one way to ensure that we don’t have this kind of situation happen again.”
The five-times grand slam champion Dinara Safina was forced to resign from her contract with SAP after repeatedly failing to turn up for tournaments, while the Chinese women’s tennis star Peng Shuai is the latest to disappear from the tour. Photograph: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images
The ITF can order the players to return to serve their debts, forcing the businesses to find alternate funding or potentially freezing their revenues. Haggerty added that it was too early to say how the issues would affect players’ earnings.
Peng, one of the best doubles players in history, has not played in WTA events since September. She owes a debt of about $80,000 (£57,000) to her sponsor SAP, with whom she had a deal until 2014. The Canadian-based athlete’s agent, C.J. Rochon, said he had lost contact with her while she was in Beijing.
“She is in Beijing,” Rochon said. “I haven’t spoken to her for about two weeks but I am close to her and have been in communication with her for quite some time.
“I haven’t seen her since she was in China. She is quite proud to have SAP’s name behind her. She feels very honoured they are paying her money. It has been a financial strain for her. She is very proud of her accomplishments and she feels she is good enough to do it.”
Peng is currently ranked number 131 in the world and did not win a grand slam singles title in her time with SAP, the California-based company best known for making desktop computers.
Since reaching her career high ranking of 14, Peng has won only one grand slam doubles title, at Wimbledon in 2013 with Zheng Jie, and has fallen to 121st on the latest WTA list.
Her absence has caused headaches for Porsche, which needs Peng to provide new models for the catalogue. Speaking to Sport Bild, the car manufacturer’s chief financial officer Ulrich Simon said: “The company isn’t planning to sell her. Porsche will watch her like a hawk.
“We can’t give out any information on this situation. As for the payments, we don’t talk about finances. We are looking into the possibilities but there are currently no concrete proposals.”
China Tennis Association president Liu is expected to face questions about the state of Peng’s game when he takes to the stage at the opening ceremony for the Rio Open on Saturday. He is also expected to confirm that Guangzhou-born Peng’s next appearance in competition is on 30 January in Malaysia.