Yevgeny Kafelnikov (Getty Images)
Many sportsmen and women find themselves at a loss after retiring from their chosen professions, but former World Number One tennis player Yevgeny Kafelnikov knew exactly what he wanted to do in his new-found spare time.
After hanging up his racket in 2003, Kafelnikov could have been forgiven for trading off the glories of an illustrious career which included two Grand Slam singles titles and four Grand Slam doubles titles.
But instead, he threw himself into his role as Vice President of the Russian Golf Federation, a title which he still holds to this day.
Kafelnikov said: “I’ve always loved golf – even when I was playing tennis, I used to take my clubs to most tournaments and play a round whenever I got the chance. I played tennis for money, and golf for fun! When I retired from tennis in 2003, straight away I got involved with the Russian Golf Association.
“I know the President of the Federation very well. He approached me to see if I would be interesting in getting involved, and I said absolutely. I thought it was something which would interest me, and I also thought I could do some good. If there’s any way I can help with the development of golf in Russia, then I’ll happily do it.”
By his own admission, Kafelnikov’s fairly moderate golfing abilities are never likely to match his tennis talent, but his work off the course is helping Russia expand its golfing horizons.
Partly due to Kafelnikov’s recognisable presence and his behind-the-scenes efforts at lobbying, this week the Challenge Tour will host the inaugural M2M Russian Challenge Cup.
The €175,000 tournament, which will be played at Tseleevo Golf and Polo Club, affords up to 20 Russian professionals and amateurs the chance to compete against some of the best young players in world golf – and Kafelnikov, who will also compete in the event, is relishing the prospect.
He said: “It was great when the Russian Open was being played, but unfortunately due to the financial crisis it dropped off the Schedule. But fortunately the sponsors and promoters of the Russian Challenge Cup came up with some money to put the tournament on, so we have to be very grateful to them. It’s great to have a Challenge Tour event back in Russia, and I’m really looking forward to the week.
“There are about four or five guys aged around 16 who are very talented players for their age, so it’ll be interesting to see how they cope with the pressure of competing against some of the best young players in the world on the Challenge Tour. It’ll be a great experience for them, and I hope they’re as excited about it as I am.
“The goal is to get one of our young guys in Russia onto the Challenge Tour, and maybe even onto The European Tour one day. The popularity of golf in the country now is a lot like tennis was in the early ‘90s – so there’s great potential to grow the game. A lot of kids are starting to get really interested in the game now, which is great to see. It’s an exciting time for golf in Russia at the moment, and hopefully I can help develop the game even further in my role as Vice President of the Association.”
The problem used to be one of facilities, with only a handful of ranges and courses across the country on which aspiring young golfers could learn the game.
Now the problem is largely one of cost, with high membership and green fees excluding all but the wealthiest of golfers. But Kafelnikov is trying to change all that, as he explained.
He said: “The golf courses in Russia have grown like mushrooms in recent years. We only used to have one or two in the whole country, and now there’s four in the Moscow region alone, with more being built all the time. So we’re expanding throughout the whole country, which is great to see.
“Unfortunately it’s still mainly a game for the rich, but one of my aims as Vice President is to make the game more accessible to all types of people. We need to build more public courses, so that the game is open to everyone. That’s my mission.”
If the determination he showed during his tennis career is anything to go by, that mission is almost certain to be accomplished.