December 23, 2022 – The Bulat Utemuratov Foundation, established by the leading Kazakhstani businessman and philanthropist Bulat Utemuratov, allocated over $80 million for several social infrastructure projects in Kazakhstan’s highly populous regions or areas devastated by natural disasters.
The Foundation allocated more than $60 million to build a school, a community center, and a passenger terminal to help improve urban living conditions in underdeveloped areas and provide more services to residents.
Later this month the Foundation will open a stroke center at a hospital in the north of the country that will provide medical care and services for patients with cerebral vessel diseases.
A school near Kazakhstan’s capital of Astana will host 1,500 students and is expected to open by September 2023.
A new community center with facilities for sports, education, arts, entertainment, and co-working will open in the same town by March 2025.
A passenger terminal at an international airport in the south of Kazakhstan will start operations by September 2024.
Separately, Verny Capital, the investment group in whose projects Bulat Utemuratov is the key investor, is allocating about $24 million to build two schools in the Almaty region to help overcome overcrowding and aging buildings. Each school will host 900 students.
Almaz Sharman, Chairman of the board at the Foundation, said: “The Foundation and Verny Capital, both inspired by Mr Utemuratov, aim to contribute to Kazakhstan’s social infrastructure development with projects spanning from schools to housing to airports. Education and healthcare are among the causes of great importance to Bulat personally, and that’s why we are paying special attention to construction of new schools, renovation and equipping the stroke center. Next year we will continue to implement these projects, as well as consider new initiatives.”
The Foundation has a history of developing social infrastructure in Kazakhstan. In 2019 it initiated a project that allocated about $8.8 million to provide housing for multi-child families, families with disabled children and those whose houses were destroyed by natural disasters. A total of 390 families in 4 cities received accommodation. The reconstruction of the Almaty Botanical Garden was completed in 2020. As much as $15 million was allocated for the Garden’s restoration, which used modern materials and sustainable technologies, and introduced advanced irrigation, lighting, and video surveillance systems.
Among the speakers were leading researcher and UCLA professor, Dr. Connie Kasari, Adelphi University professor and author, Dr. Stephen Shore, renowned scientist and author, Dr. Temple Gradin, and many more experts from Kazakhstan and around the world. Participants included psychiatrists, psychologists, neuroscientists, teachers, and parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Dr. Stephen Shore commented that, “such conferences are a great example of how people with autism can be involved in social activities.” He added that various topics concerning autism were discussed, including education, and that the conference is an important step towards improving the lives of autistic people.
One of the major topics of discussion was the early identification of autism, which is key to the successful integration of autistic people in society. In one of the conversations, Dr. Almaz Sharman, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Foundation, spoke with Dr. Joseph Buxbaum, Director of the Seaver Autism Center for Research, about new approaches for early diagnosis, such as the possibility of diagnosing autism by identifying genetic mutations in the family.
There is no official state program for the early diagnosis of autism in Kazakhstan yet. The Foundation’s activities in this field, including the annual conference, aim to address this issue. According to Dr. Almaz Sharman, “spreading awareness about the challenges that children and adults with autism face can lead to a more understanding society, and better integration and opportunities for autistic people in Kazakhstan.”
The program “Autism. One World for All,” though which the conference was organized, is Bulat Utemuratov Foundation’s flagship project. The program was created in 2014 to provide support for families and improve the lives of autistic children. As of today, 11 “Asyl Miras” autism centers have been established across Kazakhstan, employing over 200 specialists trained by international experts. More than 14,000 autistic children have participated in the program so far.
Narxoz University has signed a cooperation agreement with the Astana International Financial Centre Court (AIFC Court) and International Arbitration Centre (IAC). The agreement aims to add UK and international best practices to the university’s law courses and to help nurture highly-trained postgraduate professionals to support the upwards trajectory of Kazakhstan’s rule of law and investment climate.
Kazakhstan – home to the AIFC Court and IAC – has a 30-year history of close cooperation with the UK, which leads international legal practices. In addition to diplomatic, economic, trade and scientific ties, the partners have recently been strengthening their cooperation in the legal area. The UK judicial system sets the standard for most commercial dispute resolutions worldwide. It is significant that the agreement includes the development of joint educational programs and programs with other international schools.
In addition, the agreement will allow Narxoz students to intern in the AIFC Court and IAC, while the AIFC Court and IAC will be able to hold court hearings in the Narxoz campus’s international standard courtroom.
Bulat Utemuratov, the Sole Shareholder of Narxoz University, said: “The agreement recognizes the University’s strong academic base in the legal field and the institution’s determination to take that base to another level and connect with today’s financial legal practices both in Kazakhstan and internationally. The agreement will help to produce highly prepared and competitive graduates that will strengthen the country’s workforce in the financial and corporate legal area and contribute to making Kazakhstan more attractive to international investors. I am proud that my alma mater along with the AIFC is paving the way for more UK and international investors to come and do business in Kazakhstan knowing their rights will be protected to the highest judicial standards.”
Lord Mance, Chief Justice of the AIFC Court, commented: “I am delighted that the AIFC Court and IAC have signed a new cooperation agreement with Narxoz University. It is one of the aims of the AIFC Court and IAC to communicate and make transparent their existence, features, and availability for the benefit of all within and outside Kazakhstan, thereby broadening understanding and facilitating fulfilment of the roles assigned to them in the protection and promotion of the rule of law in the commercial field. The AIFC Court and IAC are both therefore open to establishing non-exclusive, mutually beneficial programs of cooperation with educational and other institutions within and outside Kazakhstan in terms which are wholly consistent with their independence as commercial dispute resolution institutions.”
The agreement was signed in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s main financial city, by the Registrar and Chief Executive Officer of the AIFC Court and IAC, Christopher Campbell-Holt, and by the Narxoz University President, Miras Daulenov, in the presence of the AIFC Court Chief Justice, Lord Mance, and the IAC Chairman, Barbara Dohmann KC.
The tennis players paid the visit to the center during the ATP 500 Tournament held earlier this month, to support the initiative and highlight the importance of such centers that enable timely treatment of children on the autism spectrum and their social integration.
Djokovic, who would end up winning the Astana Open, and the fellow tennis stars played with the center’s children, gave them presents and received drawings about tennis in return. The players also met with the children’s parents who talked about the importance of a timely diagnosis and the first signs of autism such as the lack of speech or interest in playing with other children, a habit to line up toys strictly or by color.
Bulat Utemuratov Foundation will hold its annual international conference on autism in Almaty at the end of November. Speakers, which include international experts in the field of autism research, developers of advanced methods and practicing specialists from the U.S., Kazakhstan, and other countries, will address the issues such as behavioral treatments for challenging behavior, effective intervention, and inclusiveness.
An early support program for very young children of up to 3 years old has been opened in all 10 Asyl Miras centers in Kazakhstan. Toddlers and parents are taught to understand each other, resolve crisis situations, play with peers, even if the child does not speak. Timely correctional assistance increases a child’s chances of an independent and full adult life.
The Foundation, whose Asyl Miras centers host more than 14,000 children, plans to open two new centers in Kazakhstan this year. The centers implement the Program called “Autism. One World for All.” The purpose of the program is the development and implementation of a progressive support system to improve the quality of life of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The program’s target group includes children with ASD up to 15 years old, their families and the surrounding community.
The miner, controlled by Bulat Utemuratov’s Verny Capital and co-owned by Resource Capital Funds (U.S), will increase production to c.190,000 oz
RG Gold, a leading Kazakhstani gold producer, has launched a new processing plant worth more than US$ 420 million. The added capacity is expected to enable RG Gold to quadruple its output to c. 190,000 troy ounces in 2023. This amounts to approximately five million metric tons of gold-containing ore. It deploys CIP (Carbon in Pulp) technology which uses coal particles during leaching to extract gold from low-grade ore at a low cost.
RG Gold operates RayGorodok deposit in northern Kazakhstan, one of the country’s largest mines with 5.9 million ounces of gold reserves, based on the JORC Code. Its output is set to exceed 50,000 troy ounces this year. The company has paid $122 million in taxes (an equivalent of ₸45 bn) since 2015 when Verny Capital became its shareholder. Resource Capital Funds (U.S.) holds a 35% stake in RG Gold.
Bulat Utemuratov, the key investor in Verny Capital projects, said: “The launch of the new processing plant is a key milestone for RG Gold. It is underpinned by the highest global industry standards using the latest innovation and technical expertise from Resource Capital Funds, our strategic partner. The new plant allows us not only to quadruple RG Gold’s overall output, but importantly, it also provides the opportunity to boost investment in the region. The company has hired additional staff for the construction and maintenance of the plant, and RG Gold now provides jobs for around 1,200 people. Undoubtedly, it will continue to deliver further socioeconomic benefits, demonstrating RG Gold’s ongoing commitment to support local communities and create value for all stakeholders.”
Martin Valdes, partner at Resource Capital Funds, said: “We invested in RG Gold in 2018. It was the first time that we invested in Kazakhstan as a firm, and from the very beginning of the due diligence process, we were impressed with the quality of the people, the quality of the institutions, and the commitment from everyone to do mining in a very environmentally friendly way and with the best interest of all stakeholders in front of everything else, especially for the local communities. RG Gold’s new production facility was built to leading industry standards which will enable the company to gain access to further growth and expansion.”
About Verny Capital
Verny Capital is one of the largest private equity groups in Kazakhstan. Founded in 2006, it holds assets in banking, natural resources, real estate, telecommunications, and other sectors. Mr. Bulat Utemuratov is the key investor of the projects managed by Verny Capital.
About Resource Capital Funds
Resource Capital Funds (RCF) is a private equity firm established in 1988 that specializes in investments in the mining sector. The company has $3.2 billion of assets under management.
The history of Kazakhstani tennis was being made before our very eyes. The capital of Kazakhstan hosted the ATP 500 series tournament – Astana Open, which was inferior only to the Grand Slam and Masters tournaments in terms of significance and status. The incredible tournament ended with a confident victory for 21-time Grand Slam champion, world No. 7 Novak Djokovic, who defeated Greek world No. 6 Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final. The 35-year-old Serbian won his fourth trophy this season and 90th overall in his career under the auspices of the ATP. Tokyo Olympic champions and Wimbledon 2021 winners, Croatians Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic became the winners in the doubles. In the decisive match, they beat the French Adrian Mannarino and Fabrice Martin.
Highlights of the tournament:
Spectators Within 9 days of the ATP 500 Astana Open, about 38,000 spectators attended matches on the central court of the national tennis centre “Beeline Arena”.
13th tournament of the АТР 500 series
For the 2022 tennis season, the calendar of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) includes 13 tournaments of the ATP 500 series. The winner of each receives not only a solid cash prize, but also 500 rating points in the ranking.
Third major tournament in Asia
In 2022, only three tournaments of the ATP 500 series were held on the yellow continent: in Dubai – Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, in the capital of Kazakhstan – Astana Open and in Japan – Rakuten Japan Open Tennis Championships.
The strongest line-up
Five Grand Slam champions of different years played at the ATP 500 Astana Open: Novak Djokovic, Carlos Alcaras, Daniil Medvedev, Marin Cilic and Stanislas Wawrinka. Five players from the TOP-10 of the world ranking and five more from the TOP-20 registered for the tournament. The line-up of the Kazakhstani tournament was almost nothing inferior to the line-up of the Masters and the Grand Slam.
Three Olympic champions have played at the ATP 500 Astana Open: Stanislas Wawrinka, who became Olympic champion in 2008, paired with Roger Federer. Nikola Mektic/Mate Pavic (Olympic champions 2020) took part in the doubles tournament.
The only tournament in Asia held indoors
ATP 500 Astana Open became the only tournament on the Asian continent, which was held indoors.
TV and mass media:
41 TV broadcasters showed the tournament in 167 countries (from the largest – USA, Brazil, Canada, Germany, France, Japan to the smallest and most exotic – Suriname, Cayman Islands, St. Kitts and Nevis, French Guiana). The world’s largest broadcasters that covered the ATP 500 ASTANA OPEN in live broadcasts and news: ESPN, Sky, Eurosport, Amazon, Reuters, Tennis Channel. On the territory of Kazakhstan, tennis fans watched live broadcasts on the Qazsport and Insport TV channels, and delayed broadcasts – on the Khabar, Channel 31 and El Arna TV channels. The daily coverage of 5 Kazakhstani TV channels broadcasting ASTANA OPEN ranged from 2.2 to 2.4 million people.
ATP 500 Astana Open was covered in print and online media by such world news sources as L’equipe, La gazzetta dello sport, Tennis world USA, New York Times, ATP.com, Srbja Sports, Spigel, Kommersant, Gotennis.ru, Championat. com, Sports.ru and many others. In total, 63 Kazakhstani and 23 foreign journalists were accredited to the tournament.
The gold mining company RG Gold, which is developing the Raygorodok deposit in the Akmola region, has launched a new plant with a processing capacity of up to five million tonnes of ore per year. The new plant will allow the company to increase annual production volume to six tonnes of Dore gold.
The plant was designed by international engineering companies with a focus on the automation of production and the application of the latest technologies in metallurgy. It was built in a record 1.5 years by the general contractor “AAEngineering Group” and operates according to the CIP (carbon in pulp) method. The plant is fitted with modern equipment supplied by global industry leaders, including Metso Outotec (Finland), ThyssenKrupp (Germany), FLSmidth (Denmark), Weir Minerals (U.K.), Roytec and Kemix (both South Africa), which ensures the safety of personnel and increases production efficiency at low operating costs.
RG Gold prioritised reducing carbon emissions while designing and constructing the plant. In addition to this, the company will clean and neutralize the cyanide used in production, in accordance with international requirements. All preliminary treated and neutralized wastes will be sent to tailings with a capacity of over eight million cubic meters, built under the supervision of international specialists.
Mr. Lawrence Rossouw, RG Gold CEO, notes that the company was able to complete construction efficiently and on time thanks to the professionalism of the project team: “It is a huge achievement – to complete the construction of the plant in just 18 months, despite the logistical difficulties caused by the pandemic and the geopolitical situation. The project team and general contractor were able to accomplish what seemed impossible.”
Yerlan Ospanov, CEO of the Verny Capital Group of Companies (RG Gold’s largest shareholder), commented: “Verny Capital always tries to maintain high quality standards in the implementation of any project, and the new plant is no exception. We stand for responsible investment and by quality, we mean not only the technical characteristics of the plant, but also its focus on sustainable practices. For us, as a shareholder, it is important to see how the Raygorodok deposit is gradually turning into a valuable and profitable asset contributing to the welfare of the region.“
Martin Valdes of Resource Capital Funds (the US private equity fund and RG Gold’s second largest shareholder), added: “We invested in RG Gold in 2018. It was the first time that Resource Capital Funds invested in Kazakhstan, and from the very beginning of the due diligence process, we were impressed with the quality of the people, the quality of the institutions, and the commitment from everyone to do mining in a very environmentally friendly way, prioritising the best interest of all stakeholders, especially the local communities. RG Gold’s new production facility adheres to the best industry standards which will enable the company to gain access to further growth and expansion.”
Investments in the project amounted to $424 million, 30% of which is financed by shareholders, and the remaining $297 million is borrowed from the Development Bank of Kazakhstan.
The CIP launch will have a positive ripple effect on the development of the region by creating new jobs and supporting local businesses by using their goods and services. In order to implement the project, the company has built a new rotational camp for 600 people, and additionally hired more than 350 people, mostly local residents. RG Gold systematically helps nearby villages and allocates educational grants for local youth. Since 2015, when the company was acquired by Verny Capital Group, RG Gold has paid more than 45 billion tenge in taxes and allocated over 1.5 billion tenge for social and charitable projects.
Bulat Utemuratov, a well—known businessman and tennis fan in Kazakhstan, is enjoying this week, like no one else, the tournament in Astana, which has been included in the ATP calendar for the time, and the first-ever as an ATP 500 event, after two years as an ATP 250 tournament.
Utemuratov became the president of the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation fifteen years ago. The 64-year-old tycoon, a native of Atyrau, is considered the driving force of tennis in his country.
Bulat Utemuratov, currently a member of the International Tennis Federation, has created several charitable associations for Kazakhstani youth. On his initiative, the Tennis Academy “Team Kazakhstan” was created to train promising players of the national tennis team.
In the Astana Open tournament, he managed to gather the best players in the world, including Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz, Novak Djokovic, Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas. “The line-up of the Kazakhstani tournament is almost as strong as a Masters or Grand Slam event,” stated Utemuratov in an interview with EFE.
The list of tournament participants is impressive: Djokovic, Alcaraz, Medvedev, Tsitsipas. It couldn’t be better. Is the presence of Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz as world number one an additional incentive for the tournament?
Of course, Alcaraz’s coming here as world number one has boosted the status of our tournament dramatically. The fact that he’ll be attending our event is both a pleasure and a great responsibility for everyone. But in addition to Carlos there are other top players at the ATP 500 Astana Open, including four Grand Slam champions from various years: Novak Djokovic, Daniil Medvedev, Marin Cilic and Stan Wawrinka. A total of six top-10 players and four top-20 players will be taking part in the tournament. The line-up of the Kazakhstani tournament is almost as strong as a Masters or Grand Slam event.
As someone close to tennis, what is your view on the phenomenon that is Alcaraz?
Carlos is number one in the world rankings. At the age of 19 he has already won the US Open. In the history of tennis only the best of the best have demonstrated such a level at such a young age. Alcaraz has achieved outstanding results purely through hard work, great desire and faith in himself. It goes without saying, people now expect the same high level of him. He’s a versatile player with a very aggressive style of play, and even at such a young age he can do almost anything. He has a strong right-handed forehand — almost a ‘cannon’ — variation on the backhand, likes to come in to the net, and a strong serve that still needs some work, and his team will improve that. Plus, he has quick legs and phenomenal movement on the court, which is what makes him so dangerous and one of the world’s best tennis players. He covers almost the entire court, and it’s extremely difficult to hit a clean winner against him. Carlos is dangerous on any surface. If it used to be the case that Spanish tennis players were dangerous on clay or slow hard courts, Alcaraz now shows that there can be danger even on grass or fast indoor courts.
This time round, the quality of the tournament is significantly higher. This is the third time the tournament is being held, and the first-ever as an ATP 500 event, after two years as an ATP 250 tournament. What does this mean for tennis in Kazakhstan?
The road to hosting ATP-level tournaments has been a long one. We built the infrastructure, trained coaches and umpires, and improved the level of coaching and officiating. Tennis infrastructure has now been built in all regions of the country: 38 tennis centres with 364 clay and hard courts of a standard suitable for major international tournaments. The second phase of construction is currently underway.
Under the Federation’s programmes more than 300 tennis coaches have been trained and over 500 other instructors work with children aged 10 and under. There are regular national and international tournaments at all levels (from ‘red ball’ festivals for the 8-and-under group to major Challenger Tour events and ATP tournaments). We hold over 220 tournaments a year, which requires dedicated and well-coordinated work by the federation team as well as a large number of top-notch umpires.
To date, we have two international category umpires with a bronze badge and another six with a white badge. Over 30 more umpires are nationally certified and fully cover Kazakhstan’s needs in terms of quality officiating.
Back in 2020, Kazakhstan was granted a one-year licence to expand playing opportunities and explore new markets for professional tennis. We held two ATP 250 series tournaments, in 2020 and 2021. Two years later we won the right to host the ATP 500 series, after the ATP decided to move the China Open from Beijing to Astana. This tournament will have a multiplicative effect, which will significantly impact the overall development of tennis in Kazakhstan.
Can the Astana tournament become a permanent and regular fixture on the ATP calendar?
I can see how the eyes of children and coaches, players and umpires, have a sparkle in them these days. For our young players it isn’t just an opportunity to see their favourite athletes, but also a great chance to benefit from masterclasses from top-level professionals, which I’m sure many of them will remember for the rest of their lives. The staff of the federation view the tournament as both a big celebration and also a serious test in terms of hosting an event as grand as an ATP 500 tournament.
Of course we want to maintain the ‘500’ status of the tournament, but that will require a lot of work, which we’ll do. The fact that we’ve now been given this right bodes well for the future. For us it’s basically like an advance payment — to show that we’re really ready for and can hold an event of this scale. The federation will continue working so that the ATP 250 licence, which we already have on a permanent basis, is upgraded to the ATP 500.
Kazakhstan is a country clearly committed to the development of tennis. Do you find that there is support from the public, including when it comes to developing young talent?
The outstanding performance of the Kazakhstan junior national team in the 14 & Under category at the debut world junior team competition captured everyone’s imagination. For the first time ever they were among the top 16 at the world championships, and not only did they perform well, they broke into the world’s top four, defeating top contenders from Argentina, Italy and Slovenia along the way. I’m pleased that the team proved themselves to be real fighters and performed as a cohesive unit, with every player making a significant contribution to this historic achievement.
To create a reserve pool for the National Teams, the federation works at all levels, beginning with large-scale tennis lessons for children aged 5 to 7. It is at this age that children acquire the necessary initial skills and participate in their first competitions. We devote a lot of attention to the ’10 & Under Tennis’ project, in which children get a base for further growth. Specialists from the federation attend major tournaments for players 10 years of age and under, watch them, speak with their coaches, and help them develop.
How much has tennis grown in Kazakhstan in recent years?
When I became head of the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation in 2007, there were only a few tennis centres in the country, mainly in Astana and Almaty. It has been 15 years, and now there are tennis centres in all the major cities and regional centres, except the regions that were created this year — but we will soon be setting up modern tennis centres there as well. The federation devotes a lot of attention to the development of sports infrastructure. All of the country’s tennis facilities have been built under our direct supervision and with our involvement.
The Federation’s budget is now financed entirely by sponsors. It used to be funded partially by the state, up to 25% of the total budget, but in recent years that figure dropped to 2 to 3%. At the beginning of this year it was decided to stop all public funding. Over the years, more than $100 million has been invested in the development of tennis in Kazakhstan.
You’re working hard to develop tennis in Kazakhstan. What is your goal, as President of the federation?
In the years that I’ve been president, the federation, by taking systematic approach, has achieved several key strategic objectives that have laid the foundation for the sustainable development of tennis. We are trying to make tennis accessible to the people of Kazakhstan, and great strides have already been made in many areas:
– the cost of court rental nationwide has fallen from an average of $50/hour in 2007 to $10/hour now;
– classes for children 10 years of age and under start at $30 to $50 per month, while for older children practising 5 or 6 times a week for 2 hours we keep prices at around $100 to $120, making tennis one of the most affordable sports. In addition, more than 3,500 children in Kazakhstan receive free instruction and financial support to travel to tournaments;
– to ensure accessibility to a wider populace, we have kept the entry cost for tennis lessons as low as possible: racquets, balls and other equipment are provided free of charge to children of younger ages;
– more than 40 of the most talented children aged 12 to 14 receive financial aid from the Federation ranging from $5,000 to $15,000 per year, depending on the player’s level and certain objective criteria;
– in the 14-to-18 age bracket we support more than 30 players, who receive subsidies of $5,000 to $50,000 per year for training and international travel.
It is worth noting that in total there are some 30,000 children who play tennis in the country. A multiple-tier support system is in place for players aged 12 and over, where coach-supervisors of each age group attend all major tournaments for the target age category, analyse the results of all players in the country, and based on objective criteria determine the level of instructional and financial support from the federation for each player. Under this system talent can be spotted at an early stage, and the necessary support can be provided to ensure timely progress in terms of the technical, physical and mental aspects of the sport.
Is there a tennis atmosphere at the tournament in Astana?
Yes, of course. Emotions are running high. The public wants to see the world’s best players live, because it’s a big event for our country. Even in the CIS there has never been a sporting event of this calibre that has featured so many top players.
How important is the nationalisation of players like Bublik, Kukushkin, Nedovesov, Rybakina or Putintseva for the development of tennis in Kazakhstan?
There was a stage when Kazakhstan had to attract players from other countries to strengthen its position in tennis. These players turned to us when they felt they needed support that they couldn’t get in their own countries.
They have all done a lot for the development of tennis in Kazakhstan. They serve as role models for kids and share their experience with junior players during masterclasses. Kazakhstan is becoming more recognised in the world, in part thanks to their achievements.
We also do a lot of work to promote tennis in Kazakhstan and to identify, select and support the best players. This work is already delivering results. Much of the credit goes to the mentors: both personal coaches and supervisors from the Federation. For example, 14-year-old Zangar Nurlanuly has had impressive results, winning five Tennis Europe singles tournaments in the last two years. He is currently sixth in the Tennis Europe 14 & Under rankings.
Also in the Tennis Europe top 100 rankings are Damir Zhalgasbay and Daniel Tazabekov. The success of our 14 & Under juniors, who are already playing 18 & Under ITF tournaments, is very encouraging. Among them are Inkar Dusebay, Zara Darken, Amir Omarkhanov, Yerassyl Bakhtiyar, Polina Sleptsova, Yerassyl Erdilda and many other young, talented athletes.
After Elena Rybakina’s phenomenal win at Wimbledon, we saw a significant increase in interest in tennis among Kazakhstanis, who began bringing their children en masse to our tennis centres across the country to get started in the sport.
What did Rybalkina’s Wimbledon victory mean for tennis in Kazakhstan? Overall, how has it been received?
Elena Rybakina’s Wimbledon victory is historic for Kazakhstan. She became the first tennis player from Kazakhstan to win a Grand Slam singles tournament. She was congratulated by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and conferred the Second Degree Order of Dostyk. We have seen a significant increase in interest in tennis among Kazakhstanis, who have begun bringing their children en masse to our tennis centres across the country to get started in the sport.
There were, of course, also those who were sceptical about the victory, emphasising the fact that Elena was born in Russia and trained there up to a certain age. However, Elena herself has long since set the record straight on the issue, publicly stating that she has long competed for Kazakhstan and has represented Kazakhstan at major tournaments, including Wimbledon and the Olympics, which she has dreamed of competing in. She has made it very clear that she represents only Kazakhstan.
The growth of tennis in Kazakhstan has allowed the country to compete in major tournaments such as the Davis Cup and the Billie Jean King Cup. Do you consider this a breakthrough?
The year 2022 is a unique and historic one for Kazakhstani tennis. The Kazakhstan women’s national team secured a historic win in April of this year, qualifying for the Billie Jean King Cup Finals for the first time ever by beating Germany, and in November our ladies will play in the final round in Glasgow in a group that includes the national teams of Great Britain and Spain. Also, our men’s team has been playing consistently in the final stages of the Davis Cup. And our junior team took part in the 14 & under world junior tennis finals for the first time this year. And they didn’t just play, but beat some of the strongest opponents, making it into the top 4 teams in the world. Now that’s a real breakthrough!
What’s your assessment of the clash between Spain and Kazakhstan in the Billie Jean King Cup Finals?
The start of the women’s international team finals is a month away. We are more prepared than ever for the final round of the Billie Jean King Cup — ready to go in with all guns blazing. We’re capable of not only getting out of the group, but winning the coveted trophy. In recent years, a balanced and strong line-up has been formed. There is Kazakhstani tennis’s leading light Elena Rybakina, one of the world’s strongest doubles players Anna Danilina, the superb Yulia Putintseva, and the team’s young hope Zhibek Kulambayeva. The team is led by one of the best captains in the tennis world, Yaroslava Shvedova, and I’m sure she’ll be able to focus the team, find the right tactics and communicate them to the players.
Bulat Utemuratov decided in 2007 to create a tennis culture for the masses in a former Soviet Republic known for combat sports and weight lifting.
By Matthew Futterman
Casual tennis fans likely got their first glimpse of perhaps the most surprising rising power player in the sport at Wimbledon in July, when a dark-haired, superfan in a Panama hat and blue blazer embraced Elena Rybakina, the native Russian turned Kazakh who won the women’s singles title.
“Unbelievable support,” Rybakina said of the effusiveness of Bulat Utemuratov, the billionaire who invested in her game and changed her life, as she thanked him during the Wimbledon trophy presentation.
Utemuratov’s sporting indulgences are back at the center of the sport this week. Because of him, the center of the tennis universe has shifted to a medium-sized city in Kazakhstan, a country that was only nominally on the tennis map a decade ago but now has the wherewithal to lure many of the biggest stars of the game.
Novak Djokovic, Carlos Alcaraz, Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and a handful of other top players competed this week in Astana, the capital of a vast Central Asian republic, because Utemuratov, a Kazakh diplomat and industrialist decided 15 years ago to use his largess to turn his country into an emerging tennis force.
“I liked it from the beginning,” Utemuratov, 64, said of tennis during a recent interview, though that beginning didn’t arrive until he was in his 30s.
Rybakina’s run to the Wimbledon championship caused a major dust-up. Players from Russia and Belarus were barred from participating in this year’s tournament because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Rybakina, 23, was born and raised in Moscow, where her family still lives. She became a citizen of Kazakhstan five years ago in exchange for financial support from Utemuratov and the country’s tennis federation. It was just one part of Utemuratov’s strategy for turning the former Soviet republic into a legitimate tennis nation, as odd as that sounded when he launched it in the ‘aughts.
His multipronged approach could serve as a blueprint for other nations that want to get better at tennis, or really any sport, as long as they have one key ingredient — a billionaire willing to spend whatever it takes. The sports world is filled with billionaires who buy teams and use them as fancy toys. Utemuratov chose to essentially buy an entire sport, for now, in his own country, though he is becoming increasingly influential internationally.
Utemuratov boxed and played soccer and table tennis in his youth. He did not start playing tennis until Kazakhstan’s post-Soviet business community embraced it in the 1990s. During the Soviet era, tennis was frowned upon as a sport of the elite. There were only a handful of tennis courts in the entire country, and playing on them was extremely expensive.
To Utemuratov, tennis was a revelation — a physical version of chess, requiring versatility, intellectual wherewithal, maximum concentration and constant athletic improvement.
Utemuratov’s tennis prowess rose with his political and financial prominence. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he served as both an economic envoy for Kazakhstan to Europe and the United Nations, the leader of one of top financial institutions and a special aide to then-President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Nazarbayev ruled the country essentially as a dictator for three decades as it worked to modernize and take advantage of its vast oil reserves.
In a country where soccer and combat sports ruled and its most prominent athlete is Gennady Golovkin, the middleweight boxing champion known as Triple G, tennis barely registered. By 2007, the country’s tennis federation was nearly bankrupt. Utemuratov and other business leaders discussed what they could do to save the national federation. Utemuratov, who had become a big fan of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, offered his services.
It was, he said, a special challenge, “like starting from scratch,” and doing so in a poor, sprawling country, with just 20 million people spread across a territory nearly 2,000 miles wide and 1,000 miles from top to bottom. Kazakhstan stretches from close to Mongolia to within a few hundred miles of Ukraine’s eastern border. It’s brutally cold for much of the year, too, and there were still barely any tennis courts.
Using almost entirely Utemuratov’s money, the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation went on a building spree, investing roughly $200 million — nearly a tenth of his estimated fortune — to construct 38 tennis centers in all 17 regions of the country. It trained hundreds of coaches and instructors and imported some from Europe. It subsidized lessons for young children and adolescents who can train six days a week for $40-$120 per month. The best juniors receive as much as $50,000 to pay for training and travel.
Utemuratov said making the sport affordable was essential to changing the perception of tennis to a game for all people from one of just the elite. There are now 33,000 registered players at all levels in Kazakhstan. In 2007, there were just 1,800. A staff of 32 at the federation’s headquarters is in constant contact with 70 other coaches and employees at the tennis centers tracking the progress of promising juniors.
Dave Miley, an Irishman who led player development at the International Tennis Federation, arrived two years ago to serve as the executive director of the K.T.F. Miley said money alone will not produce high-level players.
As interest and participation grew and the quality of play improved, the federation partnered with academies in Spain, Italy, and other established tennis countries to send its best junior players there to train. It held international tournaments from young juniors to the professional ranks.
“You only produce players if you have a systematic approach,” he said.
That is only partly true.
Utemuratov knew that people in his country would truly embrace the sport only if Kazakhstan had top professionals. And he didn’t want to wait a generation to see if the country might produce one organically.
So instead of waiting, he adopted a strategy that lots of other countries have used to pursue excellence in other sports — he began to look abroad, specifically to Russia, in search of players who had talent but were not successful enough to garner support from the tennis federation there. His offer was simple: Play for Kazakhstan, which shares a language and a history with Russia, and the country will fund your career.
He found early takers in Yuri Schukin and Yaroslava Shvedova. Schukin never cracked the top 100 but Shvedova reached a career-high ranking of No. 25 in 2012. She made the quarterfinals in singles of three Grand Slam tournaments and won doubles titles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Schukin is now one of the country’s leading coaches.
More recently, Rybakina and Alexander Bublik another native Russian, signed on to represent Kazakhstan. Russia’s tennis federation had essentially discarded both players, leaving them and their families to find coaching and court access on their own.
Bublik said he first met Utemuratov when he was a young teenager playing in Monte Carlo, Monaco. Utemuratov had reserved a court for several hours to play with his daughter. They finished early and Utemuratov told Bublik to use the rest of his court time.
Bublik, 25, decided to make Kazakhstan his second home in 2016 after he made the quarterfinals of a second-tier tournament, but with little help from Russia’s tennis federation. With Kazakhstan funding his travel and coaching, he cracked the top 100 a little more than a year later.
A lot of players receive funding when they are young from an individual sponsor who is only in it to get paid back and take his share of the winnings when a player becomes successful, Bublik said last week from his third home, in Monte Carlo.
“For him it’s his passion,” said Bublik, who is now ranked 43rd. “It’s a big love from his side.”
Utemuratov, who is now a close friend, confidant and mentor of Bublik’s, speaks with Bublik often, though Bublik said the one topic he rarely follows Utemuratov’s advice on is tennis strategy.
Despite Rybakina’s recent success, Utemuratov said Kazakhstan no longer actively looks for Russian prospects.
Instead, it is more focused on the development of players like Zangar Nurlanuly, who has held the top ranking in his age group in Europe and this year led his teammates to the semifinals of the I.T.F. under-14 World Junior Tennis Finals, a kind of Davis Cup for small fries. Utemuratov joined the team’s courtside celebration after it got through the preliminary round.
Utemuratov’s investment is paying off for him outside Kazakhstan’s tennis circles. He is now a vice president of the I.T.F., the sport’s world governing body.
The next big step happens this week, as Kazakhstan hosts a Masters 500 tournament, just below the top-level tour events, for the first time, after years of hosting lower-tier competitions. In another first, Utemuratov said the tennis federation did not have to give away tickets to fill the stands.