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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tennis Not Just a Game for Uzbeks

APNamanganskoy Governor Tulkun Jabbarov playing in a tournament in Tashkent in May.
TASHKENT, Uzbekistan -- For hundreds of officials across Uzbekistan, each morning begins with the same routine: up at 5 a.m. and on the tennis court.

They include several deputy prime ministers, the interior, trade and finance ministers, the national security chief, the mayor of the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, and almost all the regional governors.

For some, it's a matter of political survival.

President Islam Karimov is known to be passionate about tennis, and when he decided that his 25 million fellow citizens should love it too, he told his officials to set a personal example. So scores of them quickly got tennis gear, hired coaches and started working on their backhand.

"At first they looked quite awkward on the court -- adult men trying to learn the basics of tennis," said Igor Shepelev, president of the Uzbekistan Tennis Federation.

Even during an economic crisis, when factories came to a halt and inflation made people's wages worthless, Uzbekistan's government found the cash to build tennis courts and host international tennis tournaments.

The number of courts in Tashkent has jumped from about 25 in the early 1990s to more than 120.

A 3,000-seat tennis complex was built in Tashkent to allow the nation to host a tournament that now draws such stars as Marat Safin, the 2000 U.S. Open champion.

The men's $600,000 President's Cup, which is recognized by the Association of Tennis Professionals, has been played here since 1994.

Karimov makes a personal appearance for the final match. He awards the trophy and puts gold-embroidered Uzbek robes and hats on the victor and the runner-up.

Tashkent also hosts the Women's Tennis Association $140,000 Tashkent Open tournament.

Modern tennis complexes have gone up in every regional center. Seven of the 12 regions of this California-sized country host international tournaments for juniors.

The centers are tax-exempt, as is the prize money.

The efforts have not been in vain.

Before the country became independent in 1991, Uzbekistan's tennis team never placed higher than 11th among the 15 Soviet republics. Soviet players did not take part in professional tournaments.

Now Shepelev said Uzbekistan is second only to Russia and has its own WTA star, Iroda Tulyaganova. Last year, she won three WTA titles and stormed into the women's top 20. In May 2001 she was ranked 17th. Her ranking has now dropped to 30th, but she says her aim is to become world No. 1.

"I'm very pleased that the president pays so much attention to tennis. Without it I probably would not have gone this far," said Tulyaganova, 20.

Uzbek men's achievements have been modest. But Shepelev says several promising teenagers have been sent to tennis schools in the United States and Spain.

For some Uzbek officials, what began as a way of showing loyalty to the president has become a passion.

"Some impulse, initiative is needed at first, but nobody can be forced to love tennis. It is the beauty of tennis itself that attracts people," said Ravshan Fayzullayev, deputy mayor of Tashkent, who has been playing for seven years.

"When you know it from inside, begin to understand it, you cannot but love it."

He believes his mornings on the court make him a better official.

"An official who begins his day with sports will make more sensible decisions during the day," he said.