One for all and all for tennis: How social inclusion is putting Kazakhstan on the world tennis map
Bulat Utemuratov – a former diplomat, businessman, philanthropist and the current President of the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation – on Kazakhstan’s tennis boom and how they are paying it forward by changing lives for the better.
Every sport has its reputation. Many in the world share the view that tennis is a sport for the wealthy. You might think so too, especially if you were raised in the Soviet Union, like I was. Today, however, we can seriously argue against this.
It’s important to look at tennis from different angles. It’s true that it was once a sport exclusively for the wealthy and is associated with significant financial expenses when it comes to training, infrastructure, court fees, etc. Often these expenses fall on the shoulders of individual tennis players or on families whose children want to play professional tennis. There has typically been a gap between those who want to play, whether for leisure or to reach the professional summit, and those who can afford to do so.
On the other hand, however, this situation is gradually changing. Countries are employing different approaches to fill the accessibility gap from state subsidies to corporate sponsorships. The United States, for example is known for raising private capital, while Norway is known for its government funding. The UK’s LTA also released its inclusion strategy in 2021 in an effort to make tennis more diverse and accessible.
New countries are appearing on the tennis map, and Kazakhstan, which hosted the ATP500 tournament in 2022, has joined the ranks. Many wonder how Kazakhstan, a country with no tennis heritage, managed to become a tennis capital in the time span of a decade? The answer lies in social inclusion.
The price of one hour of tennis in Kazakhstan today is just under $10. A month’s worth of tennis classes is cheaper than ballet or gymnastics, but getting there wasn’t easy. We had to do a lot to make tennis an accessible sport.
While the Soviet Union provided generous funding for athleticism, tennis was not a priority recipient. By the time Kazakhstan gained independence in 1991, tennis was practically nonexistent in the country. To make matters worse, in the 1990’s one hour of tennis in Kazakhstan cost approximately $50 while the gross average monthly wage at the time was equivalent to $100.
Fortunately, Kazakhstan managed to become one of the most advanced post-Soviet economies, but despite this achievement, by 2007, our tennis federation was experiencing severe crisis. We sought every opportunity we could to turn the situation around.
Since 2007, around $250 million state and private investments have gone into building infrastructure, launching tennis programs for kids, and supporting talent within and beyond borders.
We’ve achieved a fivefold increase in the number of tennis courts, which are now enjoyed by 33,000 children and adults on average, compared to less than 2,000 players a little over a decade ago. The increase in players is a direct result of making tennis more affordable, more popular, and more inclusive.
We created an accessible platform to nurture professional tennis players. Team Kazakhstan is Kazakhstan’s first fully funded tennis school providing training, accommodation, meals, and education for junior players. As a result, 2022 marked the first year that Kazakhstan participated in the ITF’s junior events like the Junior Davis Cup and the Junior Billie Jean Cup. With our unending support and their relentless determination, we turned tennis fans into world class champions.
Kazakhstan is a multi-ethnic country that provides opportunity for its own nationals, as well as for international players who have chosen to represent Kazakhstan abroad. Last year, Elena Rybakina, who also made it to the 2023 Australian Open finals and rose to world No 7 on the WTA Ranking after her win at Indian Wells WTA 1000, was the first Kazakhstani player to win a Wimbledon trophy, and we bet she won’t be the last. Rybakina paid it forward: she decided to allocate a portion of her $100,000 prize money to support junior players and to help relieve animal homelessness. When she was offered an award from the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation, she turned it down, requesting that it be reinvested in support of future players.
When it comes to future players, KTF does not believe in limits. In 2022, we organized our first national wheelchair tennis championship, and inclusion doesn’t stop at the tennis court.
During the latest ATP500, which was held in Kazakhstan for the first time, tennis stars Novak Djokovic, Carlos Alcaraz, Daniil Medvedev and Felix Auger-Aliassime spent a day with the children at the Asyl Miras Autism Center in Astana.
By fostering connections between sport and autism, we aim to turn sport and tennis in particular, into a tool for social inclusion for those who face difficulty integrating in our society.
Kazakhstan has seen a real tennis boom in recent years, and we plan to keep going in that direction. Ultimately, it is not simply access to a tennis court that makes tennis more inclusive. It’s about something greater: our common aspiration to change lives for the better, open-mindedness, willingness to help those who are seeking for help, and values that we think are important and adhere to no matter what.
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