When WTA tennis officials appeared to move away from their longtime partner of 13 years, the Chinese government is now a favorite target for criticism of its human rights record. The move to eliminate Kuang-Peng Jiang as the match referee came after Laura Siegemund of Germany sent a final match point to Chunling Song, the more experienced Chinese official instead of Kuang, for her supposed inability to handle the tense situation.
It didn’t help the appearance of tennis making a human rights stand that Kuang was not reprimanded or even given a warning. Calls for patience and a principled leadership were issued at the same time Kuang’s role was terminated. If the relationship is over, I remain convinced that tennis has made a strategic, long-term move that will improve the United States and China’s relationship.
The view from the International Tennis Federation is that there is no longer a strong basis to continue the relationship. When former ITF President Bill Hennessy and I first took over in 1991 it was one of the few remaining relationships with a sporting power, an exclusive arrangement to supply ITF officials and liaise with world leaders. When I left as president in 2003, the relationship had deteriorated severely. In 1998, John Ferguson of the U.S. and Aline Kurlan of the Netherlands had worked hard on this relationship, but as time went on each came to believe it was useless as a conduit for engagement with their respective governments.
That relationship became intertwined with the cultural significance of Davis Cup as the heart of competition in world tennis, even though the semi-finals have continued to take place in the past decade. When I first took over the ITF, my feeling was that the relationship was worth saving as we hadn’t dealt with it as an ITF official during my time in the 1980s and early 1990s when it was operated in the U.S. and U.K.
Beginning in 1996, John Elwood, a former Wimbledon clerk and WTA executive director, was hired as a partner to direct the relationship with China. I was skeptical, given the dispute over Zhong-Bao Party and judicial control of Tiananmen Square. It made no sense that we were partnering with a government agency, but I was confident that we could manage the relationships and balance the acrimony. John and I met personally with Kuech-Boi Mingkang, former general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, who said he felt the relationship was working well and that he would continue to play a leading role in the ties.
The FIFA Executive Committee first put pressure on the ITF in 2012 after Rio de Janeiro won the right to host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. I proposed that John and I step aside as match officials for Rio and that FIFA could award the appointment to Jiang Ping, the Indonesian referee that was quoted in several The New York Times columns in 2016 for not following an organization rule that prevented an attacker from maintaining possession. Jiang used the right of discretion to have the final point played in the second set by the opponent. When FIFA, Russia and Japan wanted the games to continue, it was determined that the Chinese ITF official would not be involved.
The relationship with the ITF was always transactional. John understood that. In hindsight, I think that history would show that John was the best person to build this relationship. Jiang Ping has always been the best at running things in China and working with high level US and foreign players. We both valued the constant efforts that came with having a long relationship.
WTA Cup, the WTA event in China that will be held in Nanjing, is a crucial component of the ITF/WTA relationship. Starting in 2019, there will be one match official per side during the event, but there will be a divide on other decisions. We are still waiting to hear from the ITF whether the continuing supervisor will serve as a flag bearer of the relationship.
I am still convinced that the relationship with China will pay huge dividends. Tennis is in a better place, but the greatest benefits for the world are not necessarily U.S. or Chinese. The fact that we have to reform and work with a government agency is crucial. If China has issues, they need to be represented by Jiang Ping, the best option in China, and not the ITF and Kuang.
Nels Gilbert was U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea from 2005 to 2009 and chairman of the HOF Americas Initiative of the U.S. Department of State. He was a player and team captain for the U.S. Davis Cup team from 1981 to 1984.