Casual tennis fans likely got their first glimpse of perhaps the most surprising rising power player in the sport 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 women’s singles title.
“Unbelievable support,” Rybakina said of the effusiveness of Bulat Utemuratov, the billionaire who invested in her game and changed her life, as she thanked him during the Wimbledon trophy presentation.
Utemuratov’s sporting indulgences are back at the center of the sport this week. Because of him, the center of the tennis universe has shifted to a medium-sized city in Kazakhstan, a country that was only nominally on the tennis map a decade ago but now has the wherewithal to lure many of the biggest stars of the game.
Novak Djokovic, Carlos Alcaraz, Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and a handful of other top players competed this week in Astana, the capital of a vast Central Asian republic, because Utemuratov, a Kazakh diplomat and industrialist decided 15 years ago to use his largess to turn his country into an emerging tennis force.
“I liked it from the beginning,” Utemuratov, 64, said of tennis during a recent interview, though that beginning didn’t arrive until he was in his 30s.
Rybakina’s run to the Wimbledon championship caused a major dust-up. Players from Russia and Belarus were barred from participating in this year’s tournament because of 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 just one part of Utemuratov’s strategy for turning the former Soviet republic into a legitimate tennis nation, as odd as that sounded when he launched it in the ‘aughts.
His multipronged approach could serve as a blueprint for other nations that want to get better at tennis, or really any sport, as long as they have one key ingredient — a billionaire willing to spend whatever it takes. The sports world is filled with billionaires who buy teams and use them as fancy toys. Utemuratov chose to essentially buy an entire sport, for now, in his own country, though he is becoming increasingly influential internationally.
Utemuratov boxed and played soccer and table tennis in his youth. He did not start playing tennis until Kazakhstan’s post-Soviet business community embraced it in the 1990s. During the Soviet era, tennis was frowned upon as a sport of the elite. There were only a handful of tennis courts in the entire country, and playing on them was extremely expensive.
To Utemuratov, tennis was a revelation — a physical version of chess, requiring versatility, intellectual wherewithal, maximum concentration and constant athletic improvement.
Utemuratov’s tennis prowess rose with his political and financial prominence. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he served as both an economic envoy for Kazakhstan to Europe and the United Nations, the leader of one of top financial institutions and a special aide to then-President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Nazarbayev ruled the country essentially as a dictator for three decades as it worked to modernize and take advantage of its vast oil reserves.
In a country where soccer and combat sports ruled and its most prominent athlete is Gennady Golovkin, the middleweight boxing champion 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 could do to save the national federation. Utemuratov, who had become a big fan of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, offered his services.
It was, he said, a special challenge, “like starting 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 close to Mongolia to within a few hundred miles of Ukraine’s eastern border. It’s brutally cold for much of the year, too, and there were still barely any tennis courts.
Using almost entirely Utemuratov’s money, the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation went on a building 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 hundreds of coaches and instructors and imported some from Europe. It subsidized lessons for young children and adolescents who can train six days a week for $40-$120 per month. The best juniors receive as much as $50,000 to pay for training and travel.
Utemuratov said making the sport affordable was essential to changing the perception of tennis to a game for all people from one of just the elite. There are now 33,000 registered players at all levels in Kazakhstan. In 2007, there were just 1,800. A staff of 32 at the federation’s headquarters is in constant contact with 70 other coaches and employees at the tennis centers tracking the progress of promising juniors.
Dave Miley, an Irishman who led player development at the International Tennis Federation, arrived two years ago to serve as the executive director of the K.T.F. Miley said money alone will not produce high-level players.
As interest and participation grew and the quality of play improved, the federation partnered with academies in Spain, Italy, and other established tennis countries to send its best junior players there to train. It held international tournaments from young juniors to the professional ranks.
“You only produce players if you have a systematic approach,” he said.
That is only partly true.
Utemuratov knew that people in his country would truly embrace the sport only if Kazakhstan had top professionals. And he didn’t want to wait a generation to see if the country might produce one organically.
So instead of waiting, he adopted a strategy that lots of other countries have used to pursue excellence in other sports — he began to look abroad, specifically to Russia, in search of players who had talent but were not successful enough to garner support from the tennis federation there. His offer was simple: Play for Kazakhstan, which shares a language and a history with Russia, and the country will fund your career.
He found early takers in Yuri Schukin and Yaroslava Shvedova. Schukin never cracked the top 100 but Shvedova reached a career-high ranking 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 of the country’s leading coaches.
More recently, Rybakina and Alexander Bublik another native Russian, signed on to represent Kazakhstan. Russia’s tennis federation had essentially discarded both players, leaving them and their families to find coaching and court access on their 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 with his daughter. They finished early and Utemuratov told Bublik to use the rest 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 coaching, he cracked the top 100 a little more than a year later.
A lot of players receive funding when they are young from an individual sponsor who is only in it to get paid 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 is now ranked 43rd. “It’s a big love from his side.”
Utemuratov, who is now a close 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 no longer actively looks for Russian prospects.
Instead, it is more focused on the development of players like Zangar Nurlanuly, who has held the top ranking in his age group in Europe and this year led his teammates to the semifinals of the I.T.F. under-14 World Junior Tennis Finals, a kind 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 is now a vice president of the I.T.F., the sport’s world governing body.
The next big step happens this week, as Kazakhstan hosts a Masters 500 tournament, just below the top-level tour events, for the first time, after years of hosting lower-tier competitions. In another first, Utemuratov said the tennis federation did not have to give away tickets to fill the stands.