Steve Simon — the man who took on China and became sport’s bravest administrator

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For Billie Jean King, he is “on the right side of history”. Martina Navratilova has called him “brave [for putting] principle above money.” And John Millman believes his “strong stance” shows there are “far bigger things in the world than a game of tennis.”

It is vanishingly rare for a sports administrator to be the target of such lavish and unwavering praise, but Steve Simon – the CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association – has always dared to be different. And in choosing to not only publicly denounce China over their treatment of the former world No1 doubles player Peng Shuai, but also suspend staging tournaments in the country, he has staked a claim to be arguably the bravest administrator in world sport.

It is certainly the strongest stance a sport has taken against China, and a stark contrast to the IOC’s Thomas Bach, who has been accused of being complicit in the crisis after insisting Peng was “fine” and wanted privacy, ahead of the Winter Games in Beijing next February.

Simon’s values will come at a price. China is the most lucrative marketplace for the women’s game, and withdrawing from the country could cost hundreds of millions of dollars. It also represents a personal hit: the most significant impact of his six years since taking the job at the WTA has been the expansion into Asia and specifically China, prompted in part by two-time major champion Li Na pushing the profile of the sport in the country.

In 2019 Simon negotiated the deal that moved the WTA Finals to Shenzhen for the next decade, and around 10 WTA tournaments were due to be held in China next season. Pre-existing human rights issues – including the alleged detention of millions of Uyghur Muslims – were not prioritised at the time, a point which does leave Simon open to accusations of hypocrisy, but Peng’s case has hit too close to home.

Through it all, however, Simon – whose bookish appearance makes him an unlikely campaigning warrior – has kept the conversation firmly centred on Peng, rather than the chance of the WTA’s income tumbling.

“I can only imagine the range of emotions and feelings that Peng is likely going through right now,” Simon said on Wednesday. “I hope she knows that none of this is her fault, and that we remain very proud of her extreme courage that she’s shown through this. 

“But the one thing that we can’t do is walk away from this, because if we’re walking away from the key elements — which is obviously not only her well-being, but the investigation — then we’re telling the world that not addressing sexual assault with respect to the seriousness it requires is OK, because it’s too difficult. And it’s simply something that we can’t let happen.”

Putting his players first, whatever the political damage, has been a feature of Simon’s career. Prior to taking charge of the WTA in 2015, he spent over a decade as tournament director for Indian Wells in California, the largest tennis event outside of the majors.

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