The third-seeded Kazakhstani beat #NextGenATP Frenchman Arthur Fils 6-4, 6-4 in Antwerp to claim his second tour-level title of the season. Bublik clinched a decisive break of Fils’ serve in each set and saved all three break points he faced to improve to 3-6 in ATP Tour finals.
«I was pretty much serving all match,» said Bublik in his on-court interview. «I told Arthur I was very lucky to beat him in a final before he becomes the next big thing. That was the only option I had, and I executed it well.»
The 26-year-old maintained his rhythm behind his delivery all week en route to the trophy. After dropping just one of 37 points behind first serve to propel himself to a 75-minute victory against Fils, Bublik lifted the trophy at the Belgian ATP 250 having won 136 of 148 points behind first serve across his run.
Bublik also won a tour-level crown on indoor hard courts in Montpellier in 2022, while he added a grass-court ATP 500 trophy to his tally in June by winning in Halle.
The Kazakhstani will rise six spots to No. 30 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings on Monday as a result of his Antwerp run, just five spots shy of his career-high. «Honestly, when we won the second title, I [said to my coach], ‘Maybe that’s it, maybe we will never win another one’,» joked Bublik. «It was the greatest feeling ever, so being here again, winning another title, it means the world to me.»
A first-time visit to the capital city of Kazakhstan.
ASTANA, October 4, 2023
Always wanting to explore one of the “Stan states” of the former Soviet Union in the context of a tennis tournament, Uzbekistan has long been at the top of my list. However, no Challenger events have taken place in Uzbekistan since the Covid hiatus. Meanwhile, many players have shared their experiences in Kazakhstan, where the local tennis federation has been organizing several professional tournaments for years. What I heard was overwhelmingly positive, compelling me to dive into the Central Asian metropolis myself.
Ever since the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation (KTF) seized the opportunity to acquire a license for an ATP Tour event during the 2020 pandemic, the ninth-largest country in the world has found its place on the international tennis circuit. Last year, it even briefly upgraded to an ATP-500 event, featuring top-tier players like Stefanos Tsitsipas, Daniil Medvedev, Carlos Alcaraz, and Novak Djokovic in Astana. The Serbian superstar emerged victorious.
“Our ambition is to popularize tennis right here at home in Kazakhstan, and to make Kazakh tennis known abroad. We’ve elevated tennis in Kazakhstan from a once unpopular sport to one that everyone can play, while the Astana tournament week has made it a sport that everyone wants to play,” said Bulat Utemuratov, President of the Kazkhstan Tennis Federation.
“Holding an ATP tournament would not have been possible without years of investing in the infrastructure required to support a tournament of such high global engagement. Since 2007, we have invested into building the right infrastructure, launching youth tennis programs, and supporting talent. As a result of our investment, Kazakhstan now has 364 tennis courts, both hard and clay, four times the number compared to when we first started.”
Astana – The Capital in the Steppe
The metropolis of Astana, which translates to simply “capital,” has changed names multiple times over the past decades and is located almost in the center of the Saryarka, the Kazakh steppe. Hot summers and extremely cold winters characterize the climate. The distances in the city, which is the second-largest in the country with 1.3 million residents, can be quite extensive. A subway or the planned maglev train? Not yet. However, taxi rides or an Uber journey in sometimes adventurous American or Asian cars are an extremely affordable way to get around.
In 2017, Astana hosted the Expo World’s Fair. The buildings in the city center give the impression of a Western-Eastern capital with Turkish and local influences. Additionally, there are numerous new monuments, notably the Bayterek Tower, now considered the symbol of Astana, and many skyscrapers forming an impressive skyline. The city appears as a melting pot of modern architecture, rich history, and cultural diversity.
One of the most impressive streets is the Nurzhol Boulevard (Radiant Path), flanked by the tent-shaped Khan Shatyr shopping center to the west and the Presidential Palace to the east. A planned city within Astana, which, beyond, still reflects its original side. It’s said that Astana is a city of contrasts, capturing the soul of Kazakhstan.
“Kazakhstan is conveniently located between Europe and Asia. Given the world’s tennis calendar, the Astana Open is an important event in between tournaments in the Americas and tournaments in Asia. This provides an opportunity for players to participate in the Astana Open while en route to Asian tournaments, thus allowing them to accumulate valuable ranking points,” said Utemuratov.
“Last year’s experience demonstrated that hosting an ATP 500-level tournament enables us to attract higher ranked players, boost our revenue, and generally increase enthusiasm for the game. Ideally, we’d attain permanent ATP 500 tournament status.”
Austrians thrill at the tournament
At the beginning of this week’s Astana Open, it wasn’t foreseeable that the tournament, now listed as an ATP-250 event, would turn into an Austrian tennis festival. With Sebastian Ofner, Dominic Thiem, and Jurij Rodionov, three representatives of the Alpine republic found themselves in the quarterfinals of an ATP event for the first time in the Open Era.
Ofner, who, after Kitzbühel 2017, reached his second semifinal on the ATP Tour at the Astana Open and was defeated by eventual champion Adrian Mannarino, was quite impressed with the Central Asian metropolis. “I really like the city,” said Ofner, who had participated in several Challenger events in Kazakhstan. Some of these, like the Astana Open, are held at the spacious KTF complex. “Everything is very clean and looks very modern. I’ve been to several restaurants, and everything is flawless.”
Thiem, who lost to Ofner in a thrilling quarterfinal match in a Beeline Arena filled with around 1,800 spectators, was in Kazakhstan for the second time. “I was here 10 years ago as a sparring partner for the Davis Cup,” recalled Thiem, likely due to extreme temperatures back then. “The tournament took place in January, and it was minus 30 degrees. Experiencing such cold was quite something.”
With milder conditions in early October 2023 – the thermometer regularly exceeded the 15-degree mark this week – the former US Open champion explored the city. “A lot has changed since my last visit. There has been a lot of construction. Unfortunately, you experience less of the outdoors at indoor tournaments. But we went out a few times, and overall, it’s a cool city,” concluded the Lower Austrian.
ASTANA, Kazakhstan, Oct. 3, 2023 /PRNewswire/ — France’s Adrian Mannarino, ranked 34th in the world, was crowned champion of the ATP 250 Astana Open in the capital of Kazakhstan on Tuesday defeating world number 28 Sebastian Korda (USA) 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, in the final.
In the doubles tournament, the American duo of Nathaniel Lammons and Jackson Withrow beat Mate Pavić (Croatia) and John Peers (Australia) 7-6(7-4), 7-6(9-7). In 2021, Lammons and Withrow won the ATP Challenger 125 tournament in Astana.
After the final, Korda and Mannarino thanked the audience for their incredible support.
Adrian Mannarino said: “It’s been a great week for me with a lot of fans coming and cheering for me. I’m barely cheered like that, even in France, so it was really nice to have this atmosphere during all week”. He added: “I’m always happy to be back in Astana, it’s been my third time this year, I feel very welcomed and I’m really looking forward to be back next year”.
Sebastian Korda said: “I want to thank Mr Bulat Utemuratov for the incredible tournament. It’s my fourth time here. It is always a big honor to be back in Kazakhstan.”
About Astana Open
Astana hosted ATP 250 tournaments in 2020-2021, and in 2022 it staged its inaugural ATP 500 series. This year the players who competed in Astana included world number 26 and winner of the ATP 500 Halle Open Alexander Bublik, the leader of Kazakhstan’s national team; Davis Cup winner, 19-time ATP winner and former world number 3 Stan Wawrinka (Switzerland); another former world number 3, Dominic Thiem (Austria); and junior grand slam winner and former junior world number 1, Sebastian Korda (USA).
Across the tournament in Astana, 16,000+ spectators attended the matches. The Kazakhstan Tennis Federation brought children from its tennis centers across the country, with over 1,000 children attending the tournament every day.
Forty broadcasters covering 110 countries held TV rights for the tournament. In Kazakhstan alone, the total TV audience reached 2 million. The tournament was covered in print and online globally, with 150+ Kazakh and international journalists accredited for the tournament.
Tennis players participated in philanthropic events organized by the KTF. Stan Wawrinka, Dominic Thiem, Alexander Bublik and Sebastian Korda visited the “Asyl Miras Autism Center”. Sebastian Korda and Adrian Mannarino took part in a traditional tree planting ceremony on the “Alley of Champions” at the National Tennis Center.
In late September, the ATP officially returned to China for the first time since 2019 with a pair of 250-level events in Chengdu and Zhuhai. A pre-pandemic calendar sees players back at the likes of the China Open and Shanghai Masters, mainstays of the post-US Open swing. But an emerging tournament has since joined the Asian swing as a dependable tour stop.
The Astana Open debuted in Kazakhstan three years ago behind mostly closed doors when the ATP offered up opportunities for promoters to stage events in new locations under single-year licenses, given the challenges presented by COVID-19. Astana thrived, resulting in the tournament’s return in 2021. Having purchased a permanent license at the end of that year, the event received a one-time elevation to 500 status in 2022.
Getting to this point has been a labor of love, much in part to the passion and imagination of Bulat Utemuratov, president of the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation (KTF). For the past 16 years, more than $100 million has been invested locally by the entrepreneur and philanthropist to establish an all-encompassing infrastructure centered around delivering direct access to quality courts, high-level coaching and reliable financial assistance.
Grassroots, Grand Stages
Utemuratov’s vision to popularize the sport within his nation’s borders has taken shape from a 360-degree view. Since 2007, youth participation has skyrocketed from 1,500 to 30,000 children (for reference, Kazakhstan’s population of just under 20 million is roughly about the state of New York). Elena Rybakina won the 2022 Wimbledon singles title, Anna Danilina captured the 2023 US Open mixed doubles title and Kazakhstan’s Billie Jean King Cup team is ranked No. 7. Alexander Bublik cracked the Top 25 in July, weeks after celebrating his first 500 title in Halle. Kazakhstan now boasts more than 360 hard and clay courts with hourly court time costing under $10.
All that said, bringing world-class tennis to his backdoor is a major driver to the present and future health of Kazakhstani tennis, believes Utemuratov.
“I think it’s important to host large international tournaments to keep it going. Now in Kazakhstan there are several highly-rated sports that are growing in attractiveness, and tennis is already firmly in the top five most popular of them all,” he told TENNIS.com.
Last week, Utemuratov was re-elected for a third term on the board of directors for the International Tennis Federation (ITF), where he serves as vice president.
“We’ve elevated tennis in Kazakhstan from a once unpopular sport to one that everyone can play, while the Astana tournament week has made it a sport that everyone wants to play,” says Utemuratov. “The tournament has further popularized tennis and is showing our young players that just like Kazakhstan can become a global tennis center, they can become global tennis stars. The Astana Open has shown the next generation’s champions and young players that it is possible to train and play at home, and also succeed internationally.
“It’s one thing to send all your good national tennis players to compete abroad, but it’s another thing to gather all the world’s great players to compete with your own at home. We really wanted to put Kazakhstan on the world tennis map.”
I think it’s very important for the country and for the children to know not only Alexander Bublik or Elena Rybakina, but to know that there are other people out there, and that there is room for these children.
Bublik has experienced first-hand the impact of Utemuratov’s blueprint, as a player with grand aspirations and as a role model who is proof of concept for what’s possible. A representative of Kazakhstan since November 2016, Bublik is thrilled that the dedication of his federation has resulted in achieving a permanent ATP tournament status.
“I first arrived in Kazakhstan back in 2016, it was a dream that we would have an ATP Tour event. It was only a dream,” Bublik shared in an email. “They worked hard to get a permanent license in Kazakhstan. That’s a big step forward for us and for our country. I can see the difference—the development is huge, kids are everywhere and they know players.”
Children are top of mind for event organizers throughout the tournament. Last year, when the event boasted major star power with Novak Djokovic, Carlos Alcaraz and Daniil Medvedev and reached capacity, kids without Beeline Arena seats were provided special cushions to sit on steps for their chance to see the trio of major champions in action (the main court seats about 2,000). As of today, girls make up 55 percent of youth playing tennis according to the KTF. Clinics are a mainstay throughout the Astana Open, with Bublik owning his place as a main character to the goals of the initiative.
“During the tournament we do our best to bring top players closer to kids, to inspire them and bring them joy. We host special playing sessions and autograph signing for children and believe its important to take a holistic approach to inclusivity, eliminating barriers when it comes to gender, disability, and income,” says Dias Doskarayev, vice president of KTF.
“Alexander’s passion shines through when representing the Kazakhstani national team, where he stands as the lead player. Naturally, young tennis players in Kazakhstan look up to him as a role model, and he reciprocates their admiration. Alexander enjoys conducting masterclasses for kids, imparting new skills and generously sharing his wealth of experience with them.”
Bublik has long held the position as his country’s No. 1-ranked ATP player. When he’s home, the 26-year-old recognizes the influence he has on growing the game locally and embraces the responsibilities of ensuring progress moves forward as one of his top career goals. On kids’ day last week, he bonded with more than 200 children and proudly observed as their knowledge shone through when peers Tallon Griekspoor, Adrian Mannarino, Jiri Lehecka and Alexei Popyrin joined in the activities.
“I think it’s very important for the country and for the children to know not only Alexander Bublik or Elena Rybakina, but to know that there are other people out there, and that there is room for these children,” says the world No. 35. Take 100 spots. It sounds like a little, but I think that everyone has a chance and it’s important to be able to transmit this to children and explain to them that it’s not only a dream, it can become a reality one day, and very soon.”
“It sounds like five, six or ten years of hard work but then all of a sudden you’re there, you’re on the stadium and you’re playing Centre Court at Wimbledon. So, I think for children it’s very important to have this connection between the best of the best in the country. Talking about me and Elena, I think Elena is doing a phenomenal job. After she won Wimbledon, I’ve seen a lot of children, especially girls say, ‘I want to be like Elena.’ So, I am very proud of what we’re doing for the country.”
Big Names, Big Picture
Ranked just about 100 spots behind Bublik is Kazakhstan’s No. 2, Timofey Skatov. Among the 22-year-old’s steps forward this year include successful main-draw qualifications at Roland Garros and the US Open. Skatov opted to take a different scheduling approach by entering a pair of clay-court challengers in Portugal in favor of playing Astana, though he will always have fond memories of picking up his first tour-level match win on home soil in 2021.
“There was actually something funny about that day. I played my first ATP 250 in 2020 and lost really bad. I had gone without my coach since we couldn’t manage to get him a visa, because of COVID restrictions at the time,” he recalled. “So then the next year, I went with my coach and everything was ready, but at the last minute he got sick and had to stay at the hotel that day to watch the match on TV. So I had to play without him again, but finally won this match which felt so rewarding.
“it was a really nice day and win for me. All [of] our tournaments are always extremely organized and welcoming. The KTF really wants all players to have a positive experience.”
For Utemuratov, he naturally has his sights on much more. His next target for the Astana Open is taking it from a 250 to a 500 after seeing what the 2022 edition did for increasing the strength of its player field, driving revenue and propelling overall interest in the sport. With someone like Rybakina just beginning the prime of her career, the visionary is wide open to incorporating a WTA Tour event into his big picture (Astana held a one-off event in 2021).
“We like to think that the KTF can act as a guide for other federations seeking to develop sports in their country, not only because of our success in building our tennis scene from scratch, but also because of our success in internationalizing it. Hosting an ATP tournament helped a lot in this,” Utemuratov says.
“We are considering hosting an annual WTA 250 tournament in Almaty. This would require additional support from the KTF, as sponsors and broadcasters unfortunately tend to undervalue women’s tennis in comparison to men’s tennis. We aim to inspire even more interest and investment in women’s tennis and to make tennis one of the most inclusive and gender-balanced sports out there, as we believe it to be.”
In March of this year, it was revealed that Rybakina had bestowed 35 million Kazakhstani tenge (about $73,311 today) to fund 14 grants for girls hoping to one day join her in the pro ranks. The 24-year-old was further inspired to give back after reading letters addressed to her by a crop of young women.
“It was just big help for me when I started [as a] professional, from the Federation, so I was thinking that there is going to be good way to thank back,” Rybakina said at the Miami Open.