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.