'Where is Peng Shuai?' shirts handed to Australian Open fans
Activists handed out 'Where is Peng Shuai?' T-shirts to spectators at the Australian Open women's final to highlight concern over the Chinese star, who is absent from Melbourne William WEST AFP

Activists handed out 1,000 "Where is Peng Shuai?" T-shirts to spectators ahead of the Australian Open women's final Saturday to highlight concern for the Chinese tennis star.

More than a week after security staff ordered activists inside the precinct to remove the shirts, the protesters returned with a thousand more to give to those arriving at Melbourne Park.

"We've handed out hundreds of T-shirts now for free and there's a lot of people going to the final wearing these shirts. They're excited," Drew Pavlou, one of the protest organisers, told AFP.

Pavlou said all the shirts had been handed to attendees as they filed into the park, in the hope of beaming the message onto screens around the world during the final.

"We just want Peng Shuai to be able to speak freely. We want for her to be able to travel outside China and speak to the press without Chinese government minders controlling that."

But as the final began, the live broadcast's brief glimpses of the crowd offered little sign of the shirts -- although several were spotted by an AFP photographer inside the Rod Laver Arena.

Peng, the former doubles world number one, is absent from Melbourne and there are fears for her wellbeing after she alleged online in November that she had been "forced" into sex by a Chinese former vice-premier during a years-long on-and-off relationship.

Her allegation was quickly censored and the 36-year-old was not heard from for nearly three weeks, before reappearing in public in China. But there are still concerns as to whether she is free.

Saturday's protest comes after the tournament chief Craig Tiley changed the competition's stance on "political" clothing -- deciding to allow the shirts inside as long as demonstrators remained peaceful.

Those who stopped to speak with Pavlou outside expressed concern for Peng's safety.

"No, I think if she was fine we would have seen her in person at possibly some tennis events," spectator Karen Gibson said.

In late December after Peng had reappeared in public, she denied making the allegation to Singaporean Chinese-language newspaper Lianhe Zaobao.

"I would like to stress a very important point: I have never said nor written anything accusing anyone of sexually assaulting me," the 35-year-old said in footage apparently filmed on a phone at a sports event in Shanghai.

However, the comments did not ease worries at the Women's Tennis Association, which has been widely praised for its stance on Peng, demanding to hear from her directly and suspending tournaments in China.

Leading players at the Australian Open have on several occasions said they still hope to hear from Peng so they can be assured of her safety.

© 2022 AFP