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The Billionaire Attempting to Turn Kazakhstan Right into a Tennis Nation

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Casual tennis fans likely got their first glimpse of perhaps probably the most surprising rising power player in the game at Wimbledon in July, when a dark-haired, superfan in a Panama hat and blue blazer embraced Elena Rybakina, the native Russian turned Kazakh who won the ladies’s singles title.

“Unbelievable support,” Rybakina said of the effusiveness of Bulat Utemuratov, the billionaire who invested in her game and altered her life, as she thanked him throughout the Wimbledon trophy presentation.

Utemuratov’s sporting indulgences are back at the middle of the game this week. Due to him, the middle of the tennis universe has shifted to a medium-sized city in Kazakhstan, a rustic that was only nominally on the tennis map a decade ago but now has the wherewithal to lure a lot of the most important stars of the sport.

Novak Djokovic, Carlos Alcaraz, Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and a handful of other top players competed this week in Astana, the capital of an enormous Central Asian republic, because Utemuratov, a Kazakh diplomat and industrialist decided 15 years ago to make use of his largess to show his country into an emerging tennis force.

“I liked it from the start,” Utemuratov, 64, said of tennis during a recent interview, though that starting didn’t arrive until he was in his 30s.

Rybakina’s run to the Wimbledon championship caused a serious dust-up. Players from Russia and Belarus were barred from participating on this yr’s tournament due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Rybakina, 23, was born and raised in Moscow, where her family still lives. She became a citizen of Kazakhstan five years ago in exchange for financial support from Utemuratov and the country’s tennis federation. It was only one a part of Utemuratov’s strategy for turning the previous Soviet republic right into a legitimate tennis nation, as odd as that sounded when he launched it within the ‘aughts.

His multipronged approach could function a blueprint for other nations that need to recuperate at tennis, or really any sport, so long as they’ve one key ingredient — a billionaire willing to spend whatever it takes. The sports world is full of billionaires who buy teams and use them as fancy toys. Utemuratov selected to essentially buy a complete sport, for now, in his own country, though he’s becoming increasingly influential internationally.

Utemuratov boxed and played soccer and table tennis in his youth. He didn’t start playing tennis until Kazakhstan’s post-Soviet business community embraced it within the Nineties. Throughout the Soviet era, tennis was frowned upon as a sport of the elite. There have been only a handful of tennis courts in all the country, and playing on them was extremely expensive.

To Utemuratov, tennis was a revelation — a physical version of chess, requiring versatility, mental wherewithal, maximum concentration and constant athletic improvement.

Utemuratov’s tennis prowess rose together with his political and financial prominence. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he served as each an economic envoy for Kazakhstan to Europe and the United Nations, the leader of one among top financial institutions and a special aide to then-President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Nazarbayev ruled the country essentially as a dictator for 3 many years because it worked to modernize and reap the benefits of its vast oil reserves.

In a rustic where soccer and combat sports ruled and its most outstanding athlete is Gennady Golovkin, the middleweight boxing champion generally known as Triple G, tennis barely registered. By 2007, the country’s tennis federation was nearly bankrupt. Utemuratov and other business leaders discussed what they may do to avoid wasting the national federation. Utemuratov, who had develop into a giant fan of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, offered his services.

It was, he said, a special challenge, “like ranging from scratch,” and doing so in a poor, sprawling country, with just 20 million people spread across a territory nearly 2,000 miles wide and 1,000 miles from top to bottom. Kazakhstan stretches from near Mongolia to inside a couple of hundred miles of Ukraine’s eastern border. It’s brutally cold for much of the yr, too, and there have been still barely any tennis courts.

Updated 

Oct. 5, 2022, 7:06 a.m. ET

Using almost entirely Utemuratov’s money, the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation went on a constructing spree, investing roughly $200 million — nearly a tenth of his estimated fortune — to construct 38 tennis centers in all 17 regions of the country. It trained lots of of coaches and instructors and imported some from Europe. It subsidized lessons for young children and adolescents who can train six days per week for $40-$120 per 30 days. The most effective juniors receive as much as $50,000 to pay for training and travel.

Utemuratov said making the game reasonably priced was essential to changing the perception of tennis to a game for all people from one among just the elite. There at the moment are 33,000 registered players in any respect levels in Kazakhstan. In 2007, there have been just 1,800. A staff of 32 on the federation’s headquarters is in constant contact with 70 other coaches and employees on the tennis centers tracking the progress of promising juniors.

Dave Miley, an Irishman who led player development on the International Tennis Federation, arrived two years ago to function the chief director of the K.T.F. Miley said money alone is not going to produce high-level players.

As interest and participation grew and the standard of play improved, the federation partnered with academies in Spain, Italy, and other established tennis countries to send its best junior players there to coach. It held international tournaments from young juniors to the skilled ranks.

“You simply produce players if you might have a scientific approach,” he said.

That is just partly true.

Utemuratov knew that folks in his country would actually embrace the game provided that Kazakhstan had top professionals. And he didn’t need to wait a generation to see if the country might produce one organically.

So as an alternative of waiting, he adopted a technique that numerous other countries have used to pursue excellence in other sports — he began to look abroad, specifically to Russia, looking for players who had talent but weren’t successful enough to garner support from the tennis federation there. His offer was easy: Play for Kazakhstan, which shares a language and a history with Russia, and the country will fund your profession.

He found early takers in Yuri Schukin and Yaroslava Shvedova. Schukin never cracked the highest 100 but Shvedova reached a career-high rating of No. 25 in 2012. She made the quarterfinals in singles of three Grand Slam tournaments and won doubles titles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Schukin is now one among the country’s leading coaches.

More recently, Rybakina and Alexander Bublik one other native Russian, signed on to represent Kazakhstan. Russia’s tennis federation had essentially discarded each players, leaving them and their families to seek out coaching and court access on their very own.

Bublik said he first met Utemuratov when he was a young teenager playing in Monte Carlo, Monaco. Utemuratov had reserved a court for several hours to play together with his daughter. They finished early and Utemuratov told Bublik to make use of the remaining of his court time.

Bublik, 25, decided to make Kazakhstan his second home in 2016 after he made the quarterfinals of a second-tier tournament, but with little help from Russia’s tennis federation. With Kazakhstan funding his travel and training, he cracked the highest 100 just a little greater than a yr later.

A variety of players receive funding after they are young from a person sponsor who is just in it to receives a commission back and take his share of the winnings when a player becomes successful, Bublik said last week from his third home, in Monte Carlo.

“For him it’s his passion,” said Bublik, who’s now ranked forty third. “It’s a giant love from his side.”

Utemuratov, who’s now a detailed friend, confidant and mentor of Bublik’s, speaks with Bublik often, though Bublik said the one topic he rarely follows Utemuratov’s advice on is tennis strategy.

Despite Rybakina’s recent success, Utemuratov said Kazakhstan not actively looks for Russian prospects.

As an alternative, it’s more focused on the event of players like Zangar Nurlanuly, who has held the highest rating in his age group in Europe and this yr led his teammates to the semifinals of the I.T.F. under-14 World Junior Tennis Finals, a type of Davis Cup for small fries. Utemuratov joined the team’s courtside celebration after it got through the preliminary round.

Utemuratov’s investment is paying off for him outside Kazakhstan’s tennis circles. He’s now a vp of the I.T.F., the game’s world governing body.

The subsequent big step happens this week, as Kazakhstan hosts a Masters 500 tournament, slightly below the top-level tour events, for the primary time, after years of hosting lower-tier competitions. In one other first, Utemuratov said the tennis federation didn’t have to offer away tickets to fill the stands.

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