On Saturday, Elena Rybakina won the women’s singles final at Wimbledon, becoming the first tennis player under the Kazakh flag to reach such heights. Breathless Western sports coverage said her win “puts Kazakhstan on map of world tennis” and “could inspire a huge tennis boom in Kazakhstan.” There are a few problems in translating Rybakina’s win to a tennis boom in Kazakhstan, one of the biggest being that she’s not from Kazakhstan.
Rybakina was born in Moscow and reportedly continues to live in Russia. In fact, the lede in a Guardian article about the 23-year-old tennis star’s Wimbledon win began with “…Rybakina has not been to Kazakhstan since April…”
At 19, Rybakina switched citizenship and federations from Russia to Kazakhstan after, “her career stalled because of financial issues,” the Associated Press reported. “The Kazakhstan Tennis Federation stepped in with an offer — represent them in exchange for the cash needed to support the global lifestyle of a tennis player.”
She’s not the only tennis player competing internationally under the Kazakh flag. Among the top 100 ranked tennis singles players in both mens and womens international circuits, there are three representing Kazakhstan, though none actually from Kazakhstan: Alexander Bublik, who switched to Kazakhstan in 2016; Yulia Putintseva, who switched to Kazakhstan in 2012; and, of course, Rybakina, who switched in 2018. This is not a recent phenomenon, however; one of Rybakina’s mentors has been Yaroslava Shvedova, a former player who switched allegiance to Kazakhstan in 2008.
After Rybakina’s win the Russian Tennis Federation claimed credit, calling her “our product.”
“It’s the Russian school, after all. She played here with us for a long time, and then in Kazakhstan,” Russian Tennis Federation president Shamil Tarpishchev told sports website Championat on Saturday.
Meanwhile, as the Associated Press noted, “some commentators have claimed her victory as a Russian achievement and a symbolic snub to the All England Club’s ban on players representing Russia and Belarus.” Wimbledon is one of many international sports competitions to ban players from those countries after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
After her win, Rybakina hugged Kazakhstan Tennis Federation President Bulat Utemuratov, a businessman with hands in a number of sectors and a former official in the government of Kazakhstan’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. He has been president of the federation since 2007.
A note in one of the 2009 diplomatic cables leaked by WikiLeaks stated: “Utemuratov has long been rumored to be Nazarbayev’s ‘personal financial manager.’” For a week in December 2020, a U.K. court froze $5 billion worth of assets belonging to Utemuratov as part of the tangle of lawsuits that have followed Mukhtar Ablyazov and the murky business of banking in Kazakhstan.
On Twitter, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev congratulated Rybakina: “Kazakhstani tennis player Elena Rybakina has achieved a historic victory in the extremely prestigious Wimbledon tournament. I heartily congratulate this outstanding athlete!”
Kazakhstan, of course, is not the first or only country to acquire foreign talent in an effort to achieve international accolades. And certainly it seems that plenty of Kazakhstanis are taking pride in Rybakina’s achievement. At the same time, others are critical of the funds spent on attracting and supporting foreign players instead of cultivating local talent, or critical of the entire enterprise of investing large sums of money into prestige sports.
With reporting from the Associated Press.