The 250-level event has solidified itself as an Asian swing regular, but bigger aspirations hardly stop here.
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.
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.Alexander Bublik
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.”
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.