A banner announced that Peng Shuai was to undergo a medical procedure and, with the internet already overwhelmed by speculation about her wellbeing, she seemed like she would not be making her debut in Melbourne this week.
It would be all too easy to forget Peng is an accomplished tennis player. And yet her difficulties have only come to the fore in recent weeks. But the sensational picture which has emerged – from her imminent surgery and hospitalisation, to her public criticism of the Chinese tennis association – has made her comeback all the more agonisingly slow.
Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai returns to court just five days after life-saving operation Read more
Peng Shuai (@PPengTennis) Hello everyone! Today I started a medical procedure, would love to see your thoughts.
In the past, it was occasionally the attention over her personal life which threw Peng out of kilter. In 2011, for example, she was criticised for choosing to have her first child as part of a promotional campaign.
Peng Shuai (@PPengTennis) Take your time, chat with me you will see my heart is hurt.
Peng denied she had fallen out with her husband and coach, Ni Yiqiang, or that she had not chosen the role of journalist, but the episode threw the pair’s on-court partnership into doubt. Peng has won more than 20 WTA tournaments but has recorded just one title since the birth of her daughter, so the future of her partnership is in doubt.
The treatment which has disrupted the preparation for her Australian Open campaign is another worry. Peng arrived at Melbourne Park six days after her operation, but it has been made clear that this was necessary because Peng was suffering extreme pain in her foot. This was not just pain from stress, but from bone bruising and stretching, which has been a part of a broader analysis of the reasons behind Peng’s decline. The amount of time she has had to adapt to a drastic change of physical activity, with both intense treatment and lengthy recovery, makes clear how much she has to prove.
When Peng was first diagnosed with a tendon injury to her left foot, which she suffered during the Beijing Olympics, the treatment worked. She was able to play right up until November, but this time the Chinese national team – who are involved in a players’ collective negotiation in Melbourne, which will decide how compensation should be paid – had had it decided for her.
The medical hand-slap confirmed a growing concern that her declining performance was the result of several factors, including the injuries and illness which have been prevalent in her life in recent years, and the responsibilities of being a mother.
Peng said she hoped to return in time for the French Open, which takes place from 23 May, but the verdict which the Chinese team has arrived at is that she will not be playing again until the US Open, in late August. This is an incredibly tight schedule and the lengthy buildup will have to be managed carefully, while she tries to rebuild her physical strength and confidence.
Meanwhile, the Chinese tennis association has acknowledged Peng’s illness in its press release. No one from the association, who are drafting new measures for professional development for their players, commented on the sorry state of Peng’s tennis career.
This comes at a particularly bad time for the domestic sport. A sports management officer at the Chinese Tennis Association told China’s Xinhua news agency on Tuesday that from 2015 to 2019, more than 30% of all players in the national ranking were banned for disciplinary reasons and hundreds of young players gave up the sport.
Peng herself, who was elevated to No 3 in China after Roland Garros 2016, is down at 50 in the rankings.