On Friday afternoon, Petra Kvitova posted a portrait of fellow tennis player Peng Shuai on her social media handles with the #WhereIsPengShuai hashtag. Kvitova hailed the Chinese as an "incredibly courageous" woman in the caption.
Minutes later, Simona Halep also shared the same portrait, writing that her fellow players stood by Peng.
But the Grand Slam-winning duo aren't the first to use the now-trending #WhereIsPengShuai hashtag on Twitter. An indistinct call for answers that found only scattered support initially, the hashtag has developed into a full-blown movement that has compelled world leaders to speak out on issues of abuse and censorship.
Peng Shuai finds unanimous support in the tennis fraternity
Peng Shuai, a former doubles No. 1 tennis player from Tianjin, is at the heart of the movement. In the first week of November, the Chinese player came forward with a series of sexual abuse allegations against the country's former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli.
Peng detailed her ordeal of being "forced" into a 10-year-long sexual relationship by putting up a now-deleted Weibo post. That prompted the Chinese government to impose blanket censorship on the 35-year-old.
Peng hasn't made any public appearances since coming forward with her allegations, which have been described as the first-of-their-kind against a top Chinese politician.
The New York Times broke the story of Peng Shuai's allegations in a November 3 feature, but her case drew limited coverage in international media at first. It wasn't until WTA chairman Steve Simon issued a strongly-worded statement in support of Peng that the world began to take notice.
Simon called for a "full, fair and transparent" investigation into Peng's allegations, while also praising her "remarkable courage".
The WTA toughened its stance after receiving a suspicious letter purported to have been written by the Chinese player. In a follow-up statement, Simon threatened to withdraw all business from China if the world didn't see "the appropriate results".
"We want to make sure we're moving forward to a place where a full and transparent investigation is conducted," Simon told The New York Times. "Anything else, I think, is an affront to not only our players but to all women."
"If at the end of the day, we don’t see the appropriate results from this, we would be prepared to take that step and not operate our business in China if that’s what it came to," he added.
Support for Peng Shuai has been steadily growing in the aftermath of Steve Simon's comments. The men's governing body, the ATP, as well as the International Tennis Federation (ITF) issued separate statements on Friday backing the WTA.
The Novak Djokovic and Vasek Pospisil-led Professional Tennis Players Association has also joined the chorus of support. In an official statement released on Friday, the PTPA said there was nothing more important than the safety of players, before pushing for an "independent" investigation.
US Congress, EU leaders and the UN mount pressure on China
World leaders from across the globe have also begun taking notice of the growing chatter around Peng Shuai's case. Many of them have felt compelled to speak out against the censorship that Peng is currently facing.
UK's Shadow Minister for Asia, Stephen Kinnock, was one of the first to ask his government to take stock of the "disturbing case". Fellow parliamentarians followed, with Conservative MP Tim Loughton going as far as saying it was "unthinkable" to send delegations to China in the wake of Peng’s sudden disappearance.
"The obviously fake email in her name from Chinese state media is an insult to our intelligence," Loughton said. "[Chinese President] Xi Jinping’s regime could not sink any lower. Our government must demand to know the whereabouts of this courageous woman."
Similar calls for sanctions - including a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics - have come from political figures in other parts of Europe and also the United States.
All the political commotion has culminated in the United Nations joining the fray too. In a first-of-its-kind official statement on the issue by an intergovernmental organization, the UN asked for proof of Peng Shuai's "whereabouts" and "well-being".
"It would be important to have proof of her whereabouts and wellbeing and we would urge that there be an investigation with full transparency into her allegations of sexual assault," said Liz Throssell, a spokesperson for UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet.
What lies ahead for Peng Shuai and the movement?
Despite the strong stances taken by the WTA and the growing global support, China continues to deny any knowledge of the entire issue. On being asked to comment on Peng Shuai's allegations, China’s Foreign Ministry on Friday told reporters that it "wasn't aware" of the issue and that it was "not a diplomatic question".
The WTA, however, has made it clear that it is not ready to back off from its position. China stands to lose as many as 11 tour-level events, including the prestigious WTA Finals, if Simon and Co. were to stick to their statements.
The whole scenario has set the ball rolling on a conversation surrounding China's record of human rights abuses, censorship and attempts at sportswashing. Whether any of it leads to a boycott of the Winter Olympics, scheduled to be held in Beijing next year, remains to be seen.
The one clear picture to have emerged over the last few days, however, is that Peng Shuai has united the tennis fraternity - comprising a vastly disparate group of people - like never before. Players, experts and fans have jointly expressed concern for the well-being of the 35-year-old, who has exhibited immense courage in defying a powerful regime.
Alize Cornet, one of the first active players to have expressed her support for Peng Shuai, took to Twitter again this week to express her happiness at how far the movement has come. She said that the community coming together had given her "hope", before reasserting the importance of continuing to "stand together" in support.
"Watching the whole tennis community, and now the whole world, getting involved into Peng Shuai's story gives me hope somehow," Cornet wrote. "I just can't wait to know that she is safe and healthy. We need to know. In the meantime, let's stand together."