Chinese officials have strongly denied responsibility for the disappearance and disappearance of well-known and highly-regarded tennis player Zheng Jie. China’s biggest-selling women’s magazine Huanqiu recently accused her of a secret affair with a government official, and Huanqiu has not published an update since October 6.
“Her husband knew [about the alleged affair], but I have not heard of any story coming from the husband,” said Yu Haipeng, assistant managing director of Tennis Beijing, a tennis academy where Zheng trained between 2008 and 2011.
Zheng, a double grand slam doubles champion, has not been seen for three weeks, and there are no clear lines of communication with her in her current whereabouts. Her parents, who confirmed her $1.5m payout in a 2015 settlement, and who spoke with reporters last month, said she was missing.
Zheng Jie: no trace of Chinese tennis star three weeks after exposé Read more
Online, there have been conflicting reports about the state of Zheng’s mental state. “Chinese society has mixed feelings about her loss of popularity,” said a spokeswoman for Tennis Beijing, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Some say she always wanted to become a ballerina. But her first love was the tennis court.”
Others attribute her silence to the revelations, and her disinterest in social media, where reports about her would also be unlikely to be appreciated.
State-run media has been silent on the subject, possibly out of concerns that interviews with her would embarrass President Xi Jinping, who has cracked down on corruption in all walks of life and for whom Zheng has long been a favourite.
“When it happens like this, it is impossible for China’s state media to say anything at this point,” said Li Guoqiang, a journalism professor at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, who also runs a baseball podcast.
State media (which also provides coverage for the national team) said in early October that they planned to stick to sports coverage. “We will not have any reportage on Zheng Jie and nor will we have any comment from the management of the Tennis Beijing,” said Bai Haibo, deputy director of China National Broadcasting Network, a state-owned sports channel. He suggested that reporters make efforts to learn Zheng’s whereabouts from her representatives instead.
She is a mega-sports personality. She is the most revered young tennis star in China Sarah Hughes, former Wimbledon champion
Zheng’s absence comes at a tense time for Chinese tennis, which may be linked to Zheng’s disappearance. In recent months, the world number one ranked doubles player Wang Qiang was made the first woman to be struck down with blood poisoning caused by a liver condition, and Li Haotong, Zhang Jike, Jia Qingguo and Zheng’s Chinese doubles partner last month lost the doubles final at the prestigious Wuhan Open to a Russian duo. “If you look at any Chinese tennis team, it will only have the highest level of losses,” Yu Haipeng said.
Former men’s singles champion Andrew Lapthorne, a friend of Zheng’s, said that Zheng “loves being a star, she loves the attention”, but that she has lost some of her mental focus since the rumour broke out.
But Li said the women’s grand slam titles and celebrity endorsements are secondary to Zheng’s goal of becoming a professional ballerina. “She is a mega-sports personality. She is the most admired young tennis star in China,” Li said. “A person like Li Na or Zheng Siwei would be considered unapproachable by the masses, but in Zheng Jiayi’s case there is no fear that she’ll become irrelevant.”
Zheng’s name still appears on a database of the national bobsleigh team, which started in China’s State Sports Academy in 1990, and now gives its most recent inductees at the top of the sports world.
“I am very excited about her career as a ballerina,” Li said. “After 20 years, the bobsleigh team has become a top-notch army for the sports world. If Zheng Jiayi continues to practise after retirement from tennis, she may also become a top ballerina.”