By Bulat Utemuratov: Originating on the groomed gardens of aristocratic Britain in the nineteenth century and preserved for decades as a pastime for predominately male elites, the modern game of lawn tennis is today a powerful driver in helping to overcome gender and socio-economic barriers in society.
Wimbledon — the world’s oldest tennis tournament — may have opened its doors to female competitors in 1884, but the birth of professional women’s tennis had to wait almost another century to get its proper start. It was American tennis star Billie Jean King who helped formalize professional women’s tennis when in 1970 she, along with eight other players, kick-started what would become the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) with a tour of women-only tournaments.
This year, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the formal incorporation of the WTA and the 60th anniversary of the Billie Jean King Cup, tennis is one of the most gender-balanced sports in the world. Around 41% of all tennis players are women and nine of the ten highest-paid female athletes in the world are tennis players. This is a testament to the enormous achievements of individual tennis players, as well as the sport itself, which has become much more equal.
With the 2023 U.S. Open underway, we should also note another significant anniversary — this year marks 50 years since the tournament started to offer equal prize money for men and women in 1973, becoming the first of the four Grand Slams to do so.
Nevertheless, problems with gender equality remain an issue for global tennis. For instance, only one in five coaches are women, and women make up just 22% of certified officials. It is vital to continue working to ensure girls and women have the opportunity to reach their full potential in every sphere of tennis, around the world.
In Kazakhstan, we prioritize the inclusion of girls in tennis. It offers a safe, non-contact, low-injury sport and today in the country, 55% of all children that play tennis are girls. This strategy has been a success, with Kazakh tennis players achieving impressive results at many levels. Under-12 girls teams won the Asian team championship three times, and this year the Under-16 team reached the finals of the Junior Billie Jean King Cup. Previous stars Asiya Dair and Madina Rakhim had strong results in junior grand slams, and are now being followed by the likes of Aruzhan Sagandikova and Sandugash Kenzhibayeva. And of course, I have to mention the continued success of the adult team, led by last year’s Wimbledon Champion, Elena Rybakina.
But in order to make tennis a truly public sport, I am deeply convinced of the need to eliminate not only gender, but financial and physical barriers. As vice president of the International Tennis Federation (ITF), I set myself the goal of finding and implementing systematic solutions to eliminate barriers to participation, and we are focused on developing an inclusive international tennis ecosystem around the world. We are creating and financing international tournaments for children under 12 years of age, so that young sportsmen can gain the necessary skills for a proper professional start, and we are working to increase the overall level of income for tennis.
The reason we are focusing on children in this age group is quite simple: Up to the age of 12 is a critical period of development and one where the requirements are high. Children need international tournament practice, but most do not have access to the kinds of resources needed for such trips. We’ve targeted our support on the five most in-need regions: Africa, Asia, South America, the Caribbean and Oceania. Over the past six years, we’ve invested more than $3 million into regional Under-12 team championships for players from these parts of the world, with more than 10,000 total participants. The tournaments allowed many young tennis players to showcase themselves and their skills, and go on to win financial support from sponsors.
This work needs to be continued on an institutional basis. At the moment, funding for tournaments and player trips makes up $7 million of the ITF’s budget. It’s clear that the needs are much higher than this. For comparison, FIFA’s investment in the global development of sport and education amounted to more than $2.5 billion between 2019-2022.
From my experience in Kazakhstan, I can say that our investment and following global best practice are bearing fruit. Today, Kazakhstan is among the top 20 countries in the world in terms of tennis development. The Kazakhstan Tennis Federation has made a lot of efforts to turn tennis into a universally accessible sport by investing in infrastructure, reducing costs for court access and training, and providing professional and financial assistance to the male and female tennis stars of the future.
It is also necessary to create the best possible conditions for people with disabilities to play tennis. With this in mind, the ITF allocated $375,000 last year to launch a program for the development of wheelchair tennis. For this initiative to be successful, the active involvement of national tennis associations is a must, and wheelchair tennis must be better integrated into tournaments. Once again I’m heartened by developments in Kazakhstan, with inclusive tennis becoming more and more popular across the country. In March, the first Kazakhstan Wheelchair Tennis championship was held in Almaty, and tennis is the only wheelchair-based discipline within Kazakhstan’s Paralympics program. These are encouraging steps and demonstrate the potential for development — it is vital such efforts continue, not only in Kazakhstan but in other countries as well.
Finally, I would like to express my gratitude to all those who have contributed and continue to contribute to the development of tennis as an open, universal and inclusive sport. We’ve come a long way from the British garden lawns of the 1870s, and I look forward to seeing how much more we can do to continue opening the world of tennis up for generations to come.
Bulat Utemuratov is a businessman and philanthropist. He is vice president of the International Tennis Federation and president of the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation.