Bulat Utemuratov, a well—known businessman and tennis fan in Kazakhstan, is enjoying this week, like no one else, the tournament in Astana, which has been included in the ATP calendar for the time, and the first-ever as an ATP 500 event, after two years as an ATP 250 tournament.
Utemuratov became the president of the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation fifteen years ago. The 64-year-old tycoon, a native of Atyrau, is considered the driving force of tennis in his country.
Bulat Utemuratov, currently a member of the International Tennis Federation, has created several charitable associations for Kazakhstani youth. On his initiative, the Tennis Academy “Team Kazakhstan” was created to train promising players of the national tennis team.
In the Astana Open tournament, he managed to gather the best players in the world, including Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz, Novak Djokovic, Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas. “The line-up of the Kazakhstani tournament is almost as strong as a Masters or Grand Slam event,” stated Utemuratov in an interview with EFE.
The list of tournament participants is impressive: Djokovic, Alcaraz, Medvedev, Tsitsipas. It couldn’t be better. Is the presence of Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz as world number one an additional incentive for the tournament?
Of course, Alcaraz’s coming here as world number one has boosted the status of our tournament dramatically. The fact that he’ll be attending our event is both a pleasure and a great responsibility for everyone. But in addition to Carlos there are other top players at the ATP 500 Astana Open, including four Grand Slam champions from various years: Novak Djokovic, Daniil Medvedev, Marin Cilic and Stan Wawrinka. A total of six top-10 players and four top-20 players will be taking part in the tournament. The line-up of the Kazakhstani tournament is almost as strong as a Masters or Grand Slam event.
As someone close to tennis, what is your view on the phenomenon that is Alcaraz?
Carlos is number one in the world rankings. At the age of 19 he has already won the US Open. In the history of tennis only the best of the best have demonstrated such a level at such a young age. Alcaraz has achieved outstanding results purely through hard work, great desire and faith in himself. It goes without saying, people now expect the same high level of him. He’s a versatile player with a very aggressive style of play, and even at such a young age he can do almost anything. He has a strong right-handed forehand — almost a ‘cannon’ — variation on the backhand, likes to come in to the net, and a strong serve that still needs some work, and his team will improve that. Plus, he has quick legs and phenomenal movement on the court, which is what makes him so dangerous and one of the world’s best tennis players. He covers almost the entire court, and it’s extremely difficult to hit a clean winner against him. Carlos is dangerous on any surface. If it used to be the case that Spanish tennis players were dangerous on clay or slow hard courts, Alcaraz now shows that there can be danger even on grass or fast indoor courts.
This time round, the quality of the tournament is significantly higher. This is the third time the tournament is being held, and the first-ever as an ATP 500 event, after two years as an ATP 250 tournament. What does this mean for tennis in Kazakhstan?
The road to hosting ATP-level tournaments has been a long one. We built the infrastructure, trained coaches and umpires, and improved the level of coaching and officiating. Tennis infrastructure has now been built in all regions of the country: 38 tennis centres with 364 clay and hard courts of a standard suitable for major international tournaments. The second phase of construction is currently underway.
Under the Federation’s programmes more than 300 tennis coaches have been trained and over 500 other instructors work with children aged 10 and under. There are regular national and international tournaments at all levels (from ‘red ball’ festivals for the 8-and-under group to major Challenger Tour events and ATP tournaments). We hold over 220 tournaments a year, which requires dedicated and well-coordinated work by the federation team as well as a large number of top-notch umpires.
To date, we have two international category umpires with a bronze badge and another six with a white badge. Over 30 more umpires are nationally certified and fully cover Kazakhstan’s needs in terms of quality officiating.
Back in 2020, Kazakhstan was granted a one-year licence to expand playing opportunities and explore new markets for professional tennis. We held two ATP 250 series tournaments, in 2020 and 2021. Two years later we won the right to host the ATP 500 series, after the ATP decided to move the China Open from Beijing to Astana. This tournament will have a multiplicative effect, which will significantly impact the overall development of tennis in Kazakhstan.
Can the Astana tournament become a permanent and regular fixture on the ATP calendar?
I can see how the eyes of children and coaches, players and umpires, have a sparkle in them these days. For our young players it isn’t just an opportunity to see their favourite athletes, but also a great chance to benefit from masterclasses from top-level professionals, which I’m sure many of them will remember for the rest of their lives. The staff of the federation view the tournament as both a big celebration and also a serious test in terms of hosting an event as grand as an ATP 500 tournament.
Of course we want to maintain the ‘500’ status of the tournament, but that will require a lot of work, which we’ll do. The fact that we’ve now been given this right bodes well for the future. For us it’s basically like an advance payment — to show that we’re really ready for and can hold an event of this scale. The federation will continue working so that the ATP 250 licence, which we already have on a permanent basis, is upgraded to the ATP 500.
Kazakhstan is a country clearly committed to the development of tennis. Do you find that there is support from the public, including when it comes to developing young talent?
The outstanding performance of the Kazakhstan junior national team in the 14 & Under category at the debut world junior team competition captured everyone’s imagination. For the first time ever they were among the top 16 at the world championships, and not only did they perform well, they broke into the world’s top four, defeating top contenders from Argentina, Italy and Slovenia along the way. I’m pleased that the team proved themselves to be real fighters and performed as a cohesive unit, with every player making a significant contribution to this historic achievement.
To create a reserve pool for the National Teams, the federation works at all levels, beginning with large-scale tennis lessons for children aged 5 to 7. It is at this age that children acquire the necessary initial skills and participate in their first competitions. We devote a lot of attention to the ’10 & Under Tennis’ project, in which children get a base for further growth. Specialists from the federation attend major tournaments for players 10 years of age and under, watch them, speak with their coaches, and help them develop.
How much has tennis grown in Kazakhstan in recent years?
When I became head of the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation in 2007, there were only a few tennis centres in the country, mainly in Astana and Almaty. It has been 15 years, and now there are tennis centres in all the major cities and regional centres, except the regions that were created this year — but we will soon be setting up modern tennis centres there as well. The federation devotes a lot of attention to the development of sports infrastructure. All of the country’s tennis facilities have been built under our direct supervision and with our involvement.
The Federation’s budget is now financed entirely by sponsors. It used to be funded partially by the state, up to 25% of the total budget, but in recent years that figure dropped to 2 to 3%. At the beginning of this year it was decided to stop all public funding. Over the years, more than $100 million has been invested in the development of tennis in Kazakhstan.
You’re working hard to develop tennis in Kazakhstan. What is your goal, as President of the federation?
In the years that I’ve been president, the federation, by taking systematic approach, has achieved several key strategic objectives that have laid the foundation for the sustainable development of tennis. We are trying to make tennis accessible to the people of Kazakhstan, and great strides have already been made in many areas:
– the cost of court rental nationwide has fallen from an average of $50/hour in 2007 to $10/hour now;
– classes for children 10 years of age and under start at $30 to $50 per month, while for older children practising 5 or 6 times a week for 2 hours we keep prices at around $100 to $120, making tennis one of the most affordable sports. In addition, more than 3,500 children in Kazakhstan receive free instruction and financial support to travel to tournaments;
– to ensure accessibility to a wider populace, we have kept the entry cost for tennis lessons as low as possible: racquets, balls and other equipment are provided free of charge to children of younger ages;
– more than 40 of the most talented children aged 12 to 14 receive financial aid from the Federation ranging from $5,000 to $15,000 per year, depending on the player’s level and certain objective criteria;
– in the 14-to-18 age bracket we support more than 30 players, who receive subsidies of $5,000 to $50,000 per year for training and international travel.
It is worth noting that in total there are some 30,000 children who play tennis in the country. A multiple-tier support system is in place for players aged 12 and over, where coach-supervisors of each age group attend all major tournaments for the target age category, analyse the results of all players in the country, and based on objective criteria determine the level of instructional and financial support from the federation for each player. Under this system talent can be spotted at an early stage, and the necessary support can be provided to ensure timely progress in terms of the technical, physical and mental aspects of the sport.
Is there a tennis atmosphere at the tournament in Astana?
Yes, of course. Emotions are running high. The public wants to see the world’s best players live, because it’s a big event for our country. Even in the CIS there has never been a sporting event of this calibre that has featured so many top players.
How important is the nationalisation of players like Bublik, Kukushkin, Nedovesov, Rybakina or Putintseva for the development of tennis in Kazakhstan?
There was a stage when Kazakhstan had to attract players from other countries to strengthen its position in tennis. These players turned to us when they felt they needed support that they couldn’t get in their own countries.
They have all done a lot for the development of tennis in Kazakhstan. They serve as role models for kids and share their experience with junior players during masterclasses. Kazakhstan is becoming more recognised in the world, in part thanks to their achievements.
We also do a lot of work to promote tennis in Kazakhstan and to identify, select and support the best players. This work is already delivering results. Much of the credit goes to the mentors: both personal coaches and supervisors from the Federation. For example, 14-year-old Zangar Nurlanuly has had impressive results, winning five Tennis Europe singles tournaments in the last two years. He is currently sixth in the Tennis Europe 14 & Under rankings.
Also in the Tennis Europe top 100 rankings are Damir Zhalgasbay and Daniel Tazabekov. The success of our 14 & Under juniors, who are already playing 18 & Under ITF tournaments, is very encouraging. Among them are Inkar Dusebay, Zara Darken, Amir Omarkhanov, Yerassyl Bakhtiyar, Polina Sleptsova, Yerassyl Erdilda and many other young, talented athletes.
After Elena Rybakina’s phenomenal win at Wimbledon, we saw a significant increase in interest in tennis among Kazakhstanis, who began bringing their children en masse to our tennis centres across the country to get started in the sport.
What did Rybalkina’s Wimbledon victory mean for tennis in Kazakhstan? Overall, how has it been received?
Elena Rybakina’s Wimbledon victory is historic for Kazakhstan. She became the first tennis player from Kazakhstan to win a Grand Slam singles tournament. She was congratulated by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and conferred the Second Degree Order of Dostyk. We have seen a significant increase in interest in tennis among Kazakhstanis, who have begun bringing their children en masse to our tennis centres across the country to get started in the sport.
There were, of course, also those who were sceptical about the victory, emphasising the fact that Elena was born in Russia and trained there up to a certain age. However, Elena herself has long since set the record straight on the issue, publicly stating that she has long competed for Kazakhstan and has represented Kazakhstan at major tournaments, including Wimbledon and the Olympics, which she has dreamed of competing in. She has made it very clear that she represents only Kazakhstan.
The growth of tennis in Kazakhstan has allowed the country to compete in major tournaments such as the Davis Cup and the Billie Jean King Cup. Do you consider this a breakthrough?
The year 2022 is a unique and historic one for Kazakhstani tennis. The Kazakhstan women’s national team secured a historic win in April of this year, qualifying for the Billie Jean King Cup Finals for the first time ever by beating Germany, and in November our ladies will play in the final round in Glasgow in a group that includes the national teams of Great Britain and Spain. Also, our men’s team has been playing consistently in the final stages of the Davis Cup. And our junior team took part in the 14 & under world junior tennis finals for the first time this year. And they didn’t just play, but beat some of the strongest opponents, making it into the top 4 teams in the world. Now that’s a real breakthrough!
What’s your assessment of the clash between Spain and Kazakhstan in the Billie Jean King Cup Finals?
The start of the women’s international team finals is a month away. We are more prepared than ever for the final round of the Billie Jean King Cup — ready to go in with all guns blazing. We’re capable of not only getting out of the group, but winning the coveted trophy. In recent years, a balanced and strong line-up has been formed. There is Kazakhstani tennis’s leading light Elena Rybakina, one of the world’s strongest doubles players Anna Danilina, the superb Yulia Putintseva, and the team’s young hope Zhibek Kulambayeva. The team is led by one of the best captains in the tennis world, Yaroslava Shvedova, and I’m sure she’ll be able to focus the team, find the right tactics and communicate them to the players.