Beijing – The mystery surrounding the whereabouts of Peng Shuai deepened Thursday after Chinese state media published an email purportedly from the Chinese tennis star.
Peng alleged on November 2 on the Twitter-like Weibo that she had been "forced" into sex by former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli during a long-term on-off relationship, but the post was swiftly deleted.
The 35-year-old Peng has not been seen since, but state media has now published a screenshot on Twitter of what it says is an email from her in which she supposedly backtracks on the accusations and says she is "resting at home and everything is fine".
But who is Peng Shuai?
Doubles number one
Peng is one of China's biggest sports stars, winning the women's doubles at Wimbledon in 2013 alongside Taiwan's Hsieh Su-wei for her first Grand Slam title.
A second followed at the French Open in 2014 – again with her long-time friend Hsieh – and Peng spent 20 weeks that year ranked number one in doubles.
She also enjoyed her best Grand Slam singles run in 2014, reaching the semi-finals of US Open.
She has won 23 WTA doubles and two singles titles, earning prize money of nearly $10 million.
Peng is currently ranked 191st in the world in doubles and has not been seen on the WTA Tour since the Qatar Open in February 2020, just before the coronavirus pandemic shut down global tennis for almost five months.
Peng was in August 2018 banned from tennis for six months and fined $10,000 for attempting to force Hsieh to withdraw as her doubles partner for Wimbledon 2017 after the sign-in deadline.
"Although the offer was refused and Peng Shuai did not subsequently compete at The Championships, it constituted a breach of the Tennis Anti-Corruption Program," the Tennis Integrity Unit said, accusing Peng of using "coercion" and "the possibility of financial reward" to Hsieh to withdraw.
Peng was born in January 1986 in Xiangtan, in the central province of Hunan, to a father who was a policeman. The city also happens to be the hometown of the founder of the People's Republic of China, Mao Zedong.
She grew up in "an ordinary family" according to local media and was introduced to tennis at the age of eight by her uncle, a former tennis coach.
Peng's fledgling career was nearly cut short when doctors said she would need an operation to treat a heart defect at 12. She insisted that the operation go ahead despite her family's concerns about undergoing the procedure at such a young age, because she "loved tennis too much", she once said.
She travelled alone to the United States at 15 to further her training – armed only with an electronic dictionary.