Almaty: Kazakhstan is starting to reap the benefits of a massive injection of support into tennis which it hopes will help the Central Asian state overtake its giant neighbour Russia as a tennis powerhouse.
The patronage of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, a passionate tennis lover, launched the rise of interest for the game among the country`s political elite but the appointment two years ago of the state`s chief administrator Bulat Utemuradov as president of the national tennis federation was also a key turning point.
"We are set to make tennis one of the mass sports in Kazakhstan," Utemuradov said at the time. "We will create all the necessary conditions for raising the skills of our professional players.”
"That means not only the contacts but also tough competition with our neighbours Russia."
The creativity and enthusiasm of the new tennis supremo has already paid dividends.
More than 200 tennis courts have been built throughout the country, providing a new framework for domestic tournaments.
And, perhaps most crucially for the future professionals, the first tennis academy -- currently run by the highly respected Vitaly Gorin -- was opened in the capital Astana in 2008.
Meanwhile, the existing lack of home-grown talent has led the country naturalise several top foreign players, mainly Russians, to boost the level of the national team`s performance.
Yuri Schukin, Andrey Golubev, Mikhail Kukushkin, Yaroslava Shvedova and Galina Voskoboeva along with Sesil Karatancheva of Bulgaria were all granted Kazakhstan citizenship and the right to represent their new homeland in the international matches.
"The competition for a place in the Russian squad was too tough and the mission to clinch a place in it for me was completely impossible," Schukin said in a recent interview.
"By earning the citizenship of Kazakhstan, a republic that is constantly and rapidly developing, I was handed plenty of new possibilities."
Shvedova, who won the Wimbledon doubles` tournament with Vania King of the United States this year, said the move to Kazakhstan was the only way out for her.
"My most precious dream is to play at the Olympics," she said. "But I couldn`t get a place in the national squad until I played for Russia.”
"Now I`m Kazakhstan`s top player and I`ve taken a step closer to realising my dream with every match I play for my new homeland."
Another former Russian, Golubev, who finished runner-up at the St Petersburg Open in 2008, won his first ATP event last month beating Austria`s Jurgen Melzer 6-3, 7-5 in the final of the Hamburg tournament.
The arrival of the Russians has also boosted Kazakhstan`s Davis Cup status.
The Central Asian republic clinched a place in the World Group play-offs for the first time in its history after Golubev, Schukin and Kukushkin defeated China 4-1 on their home turf in the Asia-Oceania play-off.
The Russian press expressed jealousy for their former compatriots` successes but the head of the Russian tennis federation Shamil Tarpishchev approved their move adding the players had no other choice.
"Russia is currently unable to compete with Kazakhstan in providing their players with all the necessary conditions for further development of the game," the country`s Davis and Fed Cup teams skipper Tarpishchev said.
"Those players were forced to accept Kazakhstan`s proposal to continue their career there. They had no future in Russia within the existing situation."