How to Build a Tennis Empire
PARIS—Yaroslava Shvedova, the low-ranked qualifier who upset defending French Open champion Li Na 3-6, 6-2, 6-0 in Paris Monday, is a proud member of the most intriguing experiment in tennis: Team Kazakhstan.
The world's largest land-locked country wants to build a tennis empire, and it's sparing no expense along the way.
So far, it has invested heavily in facilities, coaches, fitness and training for its juniors.
But to have a presence on the pro tour, and role models for its teenage hopefuls, the country has had to take a more aggressive approach: It has lured players like Shvedova away from their native countries with promises of coaches, training, travel expenses and even salaries and bonuses.
None of the five Kazakh players in the French Open was born in Kazakhstan. The most recent addition to the team is 17-year-old Yulia Putintseva, Russia's top-ranked junior.
There is one player not of Russian descent: Sesil Karatantcheva, from Bulgaria. Karatantcheva was suspended from tennis for two years in 2006, after she tested positive for nandrolone at the 2005 French Open when she was 15. She said the positive test was caused by pregnancy but her claims were rejected.
"I had no money to start traveling again, and Kazakhstan came at a time when they were supporting me and still saw a lot of potential in me, so I took the chance," Karatantcheva said.
"They never even doubted that I was innocent, and they really, really believed in me."
She receives a yearly salary plus help with expenses, and bonuses for good results.
Shvedova, originally from Moscow, changed her nationality about four years ago.
"I wasn't a top player or an important player, so the Russian Tennis Federation gave me the green flag to go," she said in an interview last week.
"Now I'm not stressed about money, I can get better practice, better coaches and fitness."
The man behind Kazakhstan's big push into tennis is Bulat Utemuratov, a billionaire Kazakh businessman and adviser to president Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Utemuratov is also the president of the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation. (Utemuratov was traveling and unavailable for comment.)
"He doesn't love tennis. He adores tennis," said Eric van Harpen, the former coach of several top players, including Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Conchita Martinez. Van Harpen has consulted Kazakhstan's tennis development for the last four years and now works 24 weeks a year for the federation. "Without Bulat, Kazakhstan would not be on the map."
Tennis has had many dynasties, but now that so many countries compete, it's harder than ever to have striking success.
Kazakhstan has additional obstacles: Cold weather, few tennis courts and a large land mass with low population density, which makes for expensive travel and greater difficulty in creating clusters of talent.
Kazakhstan has a training center in Astana, the country's capital, where Shvedova trained for the French Open on new indoor red clay courts.
There's another training center in the former capital, Almaty. The players praise the facilities and coaches—"It's like paradise," Karatantcheva said—but van Harpen still preaches patience.
"Before they didn't even have tennis courts," he said. "They played on clay, but it was white like the sand of the beach. They country is huge, it's an unbelievably big distance between the cities and so it's difficult to control the training."
Van Harpen said they recently learned something about their methods: They were being too easy on the best juniors accepted into the national program.
"In the beginning, everyone on the team was very sure about his place: If you were on, you were on for the next three years," he said. "Now we see after three or six months. If they don't improve, they go out."
Shvedova had surgery on her knee early last season and struggled to recover. Her coach left her and she lost confidence. She said the support of her federation, and her friends in Astana, were essential. She tries to repay it by inspiring the country's juniors.
"I brought home autographed tennis balls and I told the fitness coach, 'Make some tournament or some challenge for them,'" she said. "He made a running competition and they were fighting so hard for them."