QINGDAO, China – MAY 10: Peng Shuai of China plays against Monica Niculescu of Romania during their match at the French Open (French Open) on May 10, 2016 in Paris, France. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)
Some of Peng Shuai’s biggest fans are flying the flag for the 16-year-old Chinese tennis player who blew a chance to win a second Grand Slam singles title, but instead the disappointment and the outrage over Peng’s Thursday match against Monica Niculescu is the new center of attention at her home tournament.
Despite many good reviews of her grueling, six-set match against Niculescu on Thursday, Peng lost to her Romanian opponent in three sets.
“There’s a fine line in being a girl and being a champion and that’s tough,” said Manuela Maleeva, one of China’s top female players. “I’m sad that someone who dreamed to win a Grand Slam lost in that match.”
Maleeva said Peng’s response was normal, “but she didn’t do it by her race.”
The harsh reaction from female fans in China has escalated in the wake of Peng’s comments that she was “more unhappy” about not being able to find a parking spot than about losing the match to Niculescu.
A blogger vented her anger toward Peng in a more appropriate forum online, where she told the player: “We have to admit that being a woman is more challenging than male,” according to People’s Daily, the official paper of the Chinese Communist Party. “The world can never give you an advantage unless it has enough females.”
“If women deserve to win more than men, we should get more women athletes,” another user posted to Twitter in a comment echoed by some on Chinese social media, according to Xinhua.
However, the generally upbeat reaction to a somewhat dour moment in the history of tennis shows that for many in China, it’s still not yet time to turn on the star.
Peng’s loss was the second blow for tennis fan Sarah Zhao, a 31-year-old mother who was sitting near one of the main stadium entrances in Beijing when the match concluded at around 4:30pm on Thursday.
She said she was mainly relieved that she didn’t have to console her two sons who were still at school. “They deserve to see the important sports happen in their country,” she said.
Peng, a former junior tennis player who was raised in a poor neighborhood in a county outside the Chinese capital, was the youngest player to play in a Grand Slam. Ranked 54th, she won two junior Grand Slam singles titles in 2011 and 2013 and in August 2015 she defeated current No. 1 Karolina Pliskova in the third round of the US Open.
The backlash against Peng isn’t surprising, said David Liu, director of the Singapore Institute of Sports Management at the National University of Singapore.
“I have heard comments that her father is so overbearing [that] it’s taken an unfair toll on her tennis career,” Liu said. “Her father is a man who you’d want to worship in China. He’s being criticized because he’s focused on his sport too much.”
“She’s facing a change in the way the public thinks about China’s female tennis players,” Liu said. “I think people are tired of women trying to get ahead.”
Liu added that if gender discrimination was outlawed in China, Wang Qiang, a two-time junior Grand Slam champion, might gain a lot of sympathy.
NewsHour special correspondent Lisa Desjardins is based in Beijing.