Kazakhstan, a country that prior to 2007 has almost never been associated with international tennis, has achieved such significant success in this sport in recent years that some have taken to calling it a tennis miracle. But the secret to this success is extremely simple — the effective use of limited resources and a systematic approach to training and fostering talent.
I have been both a witness and direct participant in the transformation of Kazakhstan into a tennis powerhouse, since joining the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation in 2020 as tennis director. Kazakhstan’s journey to tennis triumph began in 2007 when Bulat Utemuratov, a great fan of tennis, started leading the federation. He launched a project to build tennis centers all across the country, and now Kazakhstan boasts 38 modern tennis centers and 364 hard and clay courts.
Utemuratov, who has been recently re-appointed as the ITF vice president for the 2023-27 term and elected as a member for the ITF board of directors, helped make tennis in Kazakhstan not only more accessible, but also laid the foundation for more widespread and thorough training of young talent. Since 2007, the average cost of court rental has fallen from $50 per hour to $10 per hour. The federation has prepared 300 coaches and 500 instructors to train children from an early age and now hosts more than 200 tournaments a year. The number of children playing tennis in Kazakhstan has soared — from just 900 in 2007 to over 30,000 in 2023, with the 3,500 most talented players receiving free training, equipment and support to participate in tournaments.
A common refrain is that success in tennis is determined by money. Of course, that is part of the story. But in Kazakhstan we have focused on the efficient use of our limited resources, and on establishing a system of training that is based on principles of the correct volume and quality of training and competition for each age. The system in place today is similar to the very successful player development system used by Italy and Canada.
What does that mean in practice?
You always want more coaches, more courts and more funding. However, it is necessary to understand that it is not only the number of courts that matters, but that the courts you have are busy and actively being used to train the nation’s tennis stars of tomorrow. We pay great attention to this in our day-to-day work in Kazakhstan.
In addition to the effective utilization of tennis infrastructure, effective work with players is also crucial — ranging from physical training and funding to putting in place the proper motivational structures. This is a huge amount of work that is often overlooked, but which the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation is dedicating time and resources to in order to establish a system that is capable of systematically producing world-class players.
We adopt the world’s best practices in our player development, and that’s why we believe it’s not the concrete place or country where the players train that matter, but the training program. Some of our players train inside Kazakhstan in one of our tennis centers and some are based outside of Kazakhstan. Wherever they are based, the federation makes sure to monitor each player to ensure that they are doing enough tennis and fitness training, playing enough matches against a variety of opponents and gaining experience on different surfaces.
The implementation of this approach and the redistribution of resources has allowed the federation to provide more support to successful players and has already produced a number of promising juniors. Today, in every junior age group we have at least 6-7 players that are really talented and showing good results.
The federation and its president have done a great job, not only in creating the necessary tennis infrastructure, but also providing the sport and the players with sponsors. Strong, nationally recognized companies, including the likes of ForteBank and mobile operator Beeline are investing their money in the development of the sport, enabling the federation to create its own tennis academy and finance players’ travel to tournaments.
The federation also invests in identifying and tailoring coaching programs for talented players through the KTF’s targeted programs for under-14s and under-10s that operate in every tennis center. Federation supervisors attend all major tournaments at dedicated age groups, analyze the results of every player and see how they can best support the players and their coaches. Training one player from the age of 12 until 22, when they could become one of the best in the world, requires a significant investment and a lot of planning and organization.
It is also important to note that we are establishing a training system that will work in the long term, regardless of who runs tennis in the country. When I started working for the federation as tennis director, I told Mr. Utemuratov that my main objective would be to make my job redundant in the future, and that the system we have developed will function and thrive without me.
Kazakhstan has already achieved a lot in developing tennis domestically, as the success of players in the international arena shows. Since 2010, the country has had significant success at the top professional tournaments and in the Davis Cup and Billie Jean King Cup. The country has now established a player development system based on proven world standards. Of course, the full-fledged functioning of the system needs some more time, as was the case in Italy and Canada, but I am very confident that in the near future it will produce new, successful top-level players in Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan serves as a good example of how a country without a deep tradition of tennis or producing tennis players can achieve great results in a relatively short period of time through passion and the great work of the federation’s president and by putting in place a systematic approach and sound strategy. This is a lesson that other federations can follow.
Dave Miley is executive director of the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation and an international tennis consultant.